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Nov 28, 2017

Counseling in Cattle Country

I've heard it time and again.  Wyoming is flat, boring, and windy.

Flat and boring?  Much of the state is prairie and sage, home to Black Angus cattle and rattlesnakes.  Veer west, however, and you're among the prettiest peaks on earth:  the sculpted granite of the Wind River and Teton Ranges.  To the northwest, the bounty of Yellowstone beckons with its dramatic seasons, grizzlies and wolves.  Bison descended of herds nearly slaughtered to extinction during the 19th century Indian wars, roam in abundance.

Wyoming is also Indian Country, home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone after their forced relocation and confinement onto what is now known as the Wind River Indian Reservation.

And that wind?  Take heart.  I'm often told – in jest - it keeps the riff raff out.

It's true, only those of a certain breed thrive here.  You'll want to invest in a good pair of muck boots and a Carhartt. 

Sadly, Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.  Some blame the long, cold winters.  But in my short time here I've observed two other critical contributing factors:  a (seeming) lack of resources, and a culture that doesn't encourage people to ask for help.

A politically red state, Wyoming boasts conservative, tight-fisted leanings.  With its economic history mired in the tar of fossil fuels, it's struggling to find its place in a world pushing clean, green energy.  Mines and oil rigs stand idle, creating high unemployment.  And like dominoes falling the consequences come:  unemployment creates poverty, and poverty erodes families.  The erosion of families creates disconnection and isolation.  Isolation erodes physical and mental health.  And this so often leads to crisis.  People end up in psychiatric hospitals - costing the state tens of thousands of dollars each year - or worse.

Most community mental health centers have a sliding fee scale for people who can't otherwise afford a pricey therapist.  For those who truly want assistance, $5.75 pays for an hour session.

But what about those who believe it's weakness to ask for help? 

To them, asking for help sets up a different row of dominoes.  It goes something like this:  asking for help signals weakness, in a place where I must always be strong (think billboards featuring Marlboro Men).  Having to always be strong means repressing powerful emotions.  When those emotions struggle for release I use alcohol and/or drugs.  When I become an addict my family members are disconnected and isolated.  And all the while I've modeled for my children it's not ok to ask for help.

One of the questions simmering persistently in the back of my mind is how to promote healthy cultural change.  In the context of this post, that means fostering interconnections and inter-dependence that is not, broadly speaking, a norm of mainstream America.  From an early age most of us are taught to compete, stand apart, climb to the top ruthlessly, never minding whom we've trampled and alienated along the way. 

It seems obvious that to promote this cultural change could mean reducing the staggering rates of mental illness in our country.  Yes, our country.  Because I'm fairly certain this isn't a problem we only have out here in the sticks.

I foresee another row of dominoes.  But I'll save those for another post.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear how you work with this challenge, and how you may already be fostering this cultural change in your own communities.

And, if you're a meat-eater and you enjoy a strip of Black Angus this week, think of me out here in cattle country.
Stormy Filson is an independently licensed counselor living and working in Wyoming, with special interests in treating trauma, community building, and empowering women.  She is also passionate about writing, photography and film.

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  1. 2 Alex Murphy 29 Nov
         You bring up an interesting problem that is faced to some extent in where I am located on the edge of the plains in CO (just about 40 min south of the WY border). I think a key to this culture shift might be in the growth of integrated care services. I work with much of the same population that you do. However, in my role as a Behavioral Health Consultant I am located in a community health clinic that does not carry the stigma of a community mental health center or a counseling center. I have the opportunity to drop in on individuals and families during their primary care visits with their physicians and visit with those who would otherwise never darken the doorway of a counseling center. One of my goals is to meet every person who is a regular patient at our clinic at least once and build some kind of rapport with them. In this way the patients become aware of my presence and have interact with me in a non-threatening way.  Encouragement also comes from their physicians to receive mental health care when needed. Certainly many patients will never feel the need to connect with a therapist, however some will, and some who would have never considered reaching out for help have contacted me because of the relationship we have already established.
         An additional complexity exists within the Medicaid/poor community that many are not able to commit to regular therapy even if they agree that it would benefit them. Work and survival demand too much of their time and they do not have the benefit of paid time off. Taking regular time off could mean losing a job and the ability to sustain themselves or their family. This then feeds into feelings of worthlessness and depression. Here we begin to dip into another category of problems related to the constricting circumstances of poverty that are compounded by the individualistic, "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" culture.
         In the end, I think that at least part of the answer to the problem is finding ways to interface with the community in places in which they are already. For me the community health center has been a fruitful place to begin to affect change. I wonder if there might be other places in which we could naturally connect with the community.
  2. 1 Stormy 04 Dec
    Thank you for your comment, Alex.  I admit I do very much like the sound of this - a Behavioral Health Consultant.  Just the title alone has the power to take some of the stigma out of the idea of receiving mental health services.  A consultant vs. a counselor might sound more appealing, or at least much less threatening.    And I think you may be onto something in that the increase in integrated care recommendations will help move us along.

    Although, that in itself will require in some instances a culture shift among physicians, to one of treating patients holistically, rather than separating out mental/emotional concerns from the physical.  I spent quite a bit of time in CO and the state has a reputation for having excellent medical care resources.  Hopefully their attitude can spread.

    I'm not an expert on WY history,  but what little I know tells me most of the people here, especially out in ranch land, are from families that have been here since their ancestors came across the country in wagons and/or with cattle.  There's a hard-headed "I'm going to survive no matter what" mentality in some instances.  Those folks had to be tough to make it out here, no doubt about it.  And I think they still pride themselves on being tough - at all costs.  So that's a bigger sort of culture-shift I'm not sure how to begin to tackle.

    Thank you again for taking the time - it's great to hear from you.


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