As pandemic-related mental health issues proliferate, advocates say the hotline provides an important safety net.
CASPER — As office workers across the city prepare to head home, the telephone operators at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline in Casper are just settling into their shifts — checking systems to ensure calls aren’t dropped, brushing up on training materials and reviewing calls from the past week.
Housed in the Central Wyoming Counseling Center, a sprawling complex with soft light, artfully arranged houseplants and high-resolution nature photographs, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is one of two statewide lifelines in Wyoming. The center is staffed by just four phone operators and Director Bernice Hazucha.
The lifeline operates between 4 p.m. and midnight because those are “peak call hours,” according to Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers. The state’s other lifeline, which is based in Greybull, operates from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. “Right now, the two centers make sure that they’re not open at the same time so they can cover more hours,” Summerville said. “But even between those two centers, right now we don’t have 24/7 coverage.”
The services opened in August 2020, just as the pandemic exacerbated mental health problems for Wyoming residents from nurses, to educators to kids. The center’s first ever call came in at 4:01 p.m. on opening day and required an “active rescue,” meaning law enforcement had to be called because the caller’s life was at risk, Hazucha recalls. Her inaugural staff member wanted to leave because of the call’s intensity, she said, but she told the staffer: “No, we’ve got more to do.”
In March, the CWCC lifeline received 14 calls from adolescents. In April the call volume from kids more than doubled.
Advocates say the two state lifelines are crucial tools for addressing growing mental health needs in a state where health care resources are already stretched thin and safety nets are frayed.
A labor of love
Hazucha thought she was headed toward retirement when her husband, Kevin Hazucha, agreed to take a job in Casper as CEO of Central Wyoming Counseling Center. The New York couple packed up and headed West in 2018.
Back in New York’s Hudson Valley, Hazucha spent two decades working suicide hotlines and was suprised to learn her new home state, which consistently has one of the highest suicide rates per capita, did not have a statewide hotline.
Hazucha applied her frenetic work ethic to changing that.
She and Kevin met with Gov. Mark Gordon and other lawmakers in January of 2019 and soon after secured funding to open the state’s first suicide prevention hotline center by summer 2020.
Two years on, Hazucha starts each work day around 8 a.m. from home answering emails and checking in with the night’s previous callers. Then she heads into the CWCC office to monitor and help out at the call center. She debriefs after active rescue calls that require law enforcement intervention, provides hotline workers tomes of training materials and listens in to make sure operators aren’t struggling with a call, jumping in if they are.
“There’s a very short time period you have to make that connection,” Kevin Hazucha said. “And if you blow it, if you don’t do that and somebody hangs up, you’ve lost a real opportunity to save a life and to make a difference.”
Bernice Hazucha is acutely aware of those stakes and makes sure her staff is too. “Your listening skills become very sharp,” she said.
In the two decades Hazucha’s operated suicide hotlines, she’s lost two people, she said. The circumstances of those days are seared in her memory, and years later she vividly recalls the sudden silence engulfing the line after rushed pleas to tell family members that they were loved.
Most days, she goes home when the center closes at 12 a.m.
Local voices make a difference
Wyoming residents can call the national suicide prevention lifeline, but advocates of state-based services say reaching an operator who lives in the state, and understands the nuances of life in Wyoming — from winter conditions that make visiting a counselor in person impossible to struggling with feeling like an outsider in a small, isolated town — makes all the difference.
“Somebody from Tallahassee, Florida that picks up isn’t going to understand the culture here,” Kevin Hazucha said. “They won’t understand what some of the barriers are.”
“It’s really great to have somebody to talk to,” Summerville said. “Sometimes that’s all it takes. But when there’s a higher need and services are needed, it’s really important that we have a call center in the state that knows where those resources are.”
Because the lifeline in Casper is housed within CWCC, operators offer access to counselors or in-patient treatment at the center when needed, or connect callers with the other mental-health and substance-abuse treatment centers in the state.
Ralph Nieder-Westermann, services director of Wyoming LifeLine, the state’s other call center, remembers one caller who told him, “‘But you don’t understand what it’s like, because you don’t live in a small town.’”
Nieder-Westermann told the caller he lived in Greybull, where only a couple thousand people reside.
“I could sense her sigh of relief,” Nieder-Westermann recalled. “‘She said, ‘I didn’t know that I was going to get somebody local.’”
The hotline is open seven days a week, and the Hazuchas hope the American Rescue Act Plan dollars allocated during the 2022 legislative session will provide funding to operate 24 hours a day, rather than eight. The state has not yet made a formal request for proposals, Summerville said, but CWCC’s center is planning to apply once it does.
With state funds, CWCC could hire more staff and expand hours. In July, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number will also transition to 988, which providers expect will eventually increase call volume. New geolocation technology will also accompany the 988 rollout, allowing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to route calls based on actual location rather than just area code.
In the meantime, the center will continue working with the resources it has managed to secure.
Hazucha’s eyes water and her voice cracks when she talks about spearheading the state’s first suicide prevention hotline, the ways she hopes to grow the center and perhaps even one day build up a team that would operate without her.
“Talking about suicide, it’s not a fun thing, but it’s there,” she said. “That is where my passion arises because that’s where I grew. That’s what I love to do and the most rewarding thing is when you save that life.”
If you or someone you know needs to talk, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “WYO” to 741-741.