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.