Officials talk mental health, recession and downturn in Wyo’s energy sector

In the latest webinar series by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, officials talked about Wyoming’s energy downturn, family services and options for mental health services during the ongoing pandemic. (COURTESY PHOTO)

EVANSTON — Wyoming resident Lynne Huskinson spent decades working in the state’s coalmines in Campbell County. Now she’s speaking out about the situation facing current and former miners as the downturn in the energy industry continues with no end in sight.

Huskinson was one of three speakers in the latest Powder River Basin Resource Council’s spring webinar series, “Reclaiming and Growing Wyoming’s Future,” during which she detailed what it was like for those working at Campbell County’s Black Jewel mine during the summer of 2019. According to Huskinson, miners at Black Jewel first knew the company they worked for was in serious trouble when the usual payday Friday rolled around and none of them received a paycheck. By Sunday, staff were called into an emergency meeting and told the company was filing for bankruptcy. A mere six hours later, they were escorted off the premises and the mine’s gates were locked.

Employees were not allowed to enter even to retrieve personal belongings, equipment and tools. They were left with no jobs and no future income, on top of the completely unexpected missed paycheck. Those with automatic bill payments scheduled to be withdrawn from bank accounts then faced penalties when their accounts lacked the funds to make those payments. Huskinson said she was lucky. After years of working in the mines, she had a personal retirement account she was able to access. For many, they soon discovered their pension accounts through Black Jewel had been frozen.

According to Huskinson, who has also been involved with her local Salvation Army and other emergency service providers, need in Campbell County jumped to unprecedented levels almost overnight, with the Salvation Army rapidly shifting from providing 100 boxes of food on distribution days to providing about 2,000 boxes.

Ultimately, that particular mine was able to reopen after several months; however, production is still down significantly and a great deal of uncertainty remains. In addition, employees who went through the trauma of the sudden loss of employment may now find themselves back working for some of the same people involved with the lockout, which Huskinson said has negatively affected morale and has associated mental health considerations.

Given her personal experience, Huskinson now speaks regularly with others still working at the mines, urging them to take steps to prepare for an uncertain future where the only certainty seems to be the continued downturn. “People need to prepare themselves,” she said. “I’ve been in a position where I almost feel bad that I was prepared and others were not.”

Huskinson has also found herself testifying before legislative committees urging state lawmakers to act to help Wyoming residents suffering through the economic downturn that is projected to continue — suffering that has only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Sheridan psychologist Dr. Hollis Hackman, the second speaker of the webinar, shared information about the mental health consequences of the economic recession and pandemic. Hackman said Wyoming has consistently ranked in the top five states nationally for suicide rates; however, the most recent data show the state once again has the distinction of leading the nation in suicides. There is a two-year lag between when events actually occur and when the data is compiled and released, and Hackman said he is concerned that when data for the past year-plus of the pandemic and related recession are compiled and available the situation may be even worse.

Hackman shared some sobering statistics from the American Psychological Association “Stress in America” survey, which captured some of the negative impacts of the pandemic on physical and mental health. Hackman said that data show that more than 60% of respondents reported undesired weight changes since the pandemic began, either weight loss or weight gain, with the average reported change 15-29 pounds.

Two in three adults reported sleep disruptions, and 47% reported delaying or canceling health care services, either due to concerns about COVID or because of inability to pay for care. Hackman said the data show that cancer cases found throughout the pandemic have been found to be at more advanced stages because of delays in diagnosis. He said he believes these national trends are even more pronounced in Wyoming, which was already dealing with an unprecedented economic downturn and related job losses prior to the pandemic.

In addition, he noted there is already a shortage of healthcare and, specifically, mental health care providers in the state and that there is significant stigma associated with mental health concerns in Wyoming.

After providing the rather grim statistics, Hackman then turned to a discussion of some solutions for stress management. He said the key is to focus on things within an individual’s control, which can be difficult at times when there is so much that is simply not within that individual control. However, he emphasized the importance of building and maintaining support networks — family, friends and resources people can turn to for help or even just a listening ear.

Hackman also emphasized the importance of regular exercise, noting that studies have found exercise produces similar benefits to prescription antidepressants — with fewer side effects and often more sustained and long-term payoffs. He stressed the importance of getting adequate sleep, about 7-8 hours per night, as well as the importance of relaxation of some type and of spending time outdoors. All those behaviors carry both mental and physical health benefits.

Clint Hanes, public information officer with the Wyoming Department of Family Services, was the final speaker of the webinar, sharing information on the services DFS can provide for individuals and families. Hanes said DFS operates on three core values, including keeping families safe at home, providing opportunities for success for families and supporting people who support families, which includes supporting partner organizations.

According to Hanes, about 88% of the work DFS does involves direct service provision, mainly primary and secondary prevention work to keep families together; a very small amount of DFS work is actually removing individuals from homes.

Hanes said there are many programs available to provide assistance to families that may be struggling due to income and job loss, which may have been exacerbated by the pandemic and recession. He said information and applications for programs can be found online at dfs.wyo.gov, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other emergency food assistance programs, as well as the new Emergency Rental Assistance Program to help individuals who may be behind on rent and utilities due to the pandemic. The emergency rental assistance program is based on mean costs in each county and can be retroactive back to March of 2020 when the pandemic began. Information on that program is available online for both renters and landlords.

Other programs offered by DFS include the low-income energy assistance program (LIEAP), which helps with winter heating costs; a weatherization assistance program; a telephone and internet assistance program; and programs that can administer some cash payments for those working on obtaining job training. Hanes said there are DFS offices in every county with staff to answer questions and assist people in need to apply for assistance.

Following individual presentations, Hanes, Hackman and Huskinson then spent some time answering questions about Wyoming’s future. All three emphasized the need for holistic community approaches to dealing with the economic downturn associated with the transition toward renewable energy and the decline of coal in particular.

Webinar moderator Wyoming House Minority Leader Dr. Cathy Connolly asked presenters if they had any thoughts on how the state should utilize the more than $1 billion Wyoming will be receiving through the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act.

Hanes said, from a DFS perspective, it will be about community involvement and meeting specific community needs through town hall meetings and talks with the people in each county to find out what is needed. He said partnerships will be key in both discovering what is needed and disseminating information to those in need about how assistance can be obtained.

Huskinson said she would like to see some of the ARPA money utilized to help put miners back to work doing reclamation on abandoned mines. She said there are “huge” needs for that kind of work, which she said could meet multiple purposes of creating jobs, cleaning up Wyoming’s outdoor spaces and protecting water resources and helping bolster tourism in the state. Hackman said he thinks some of the money could be utilized to deal with problems related to food insecurity, lack of affordable housing and access to affordable healthcare.

“When people’s basic needs like these aren’t met, it impacts mental health as well,” he said.

The three speakers also addressed Wyoming’s “cultural mindset” that often prevents people from asking for help because of perceptions, both internal and external, that doing so demonstrates weakness or that those who need assistance are somehow lazy or otherwise deserving of their circumstances.

Huskinson said she believes it’s important to discuss mental health openly and to let people know it’s okay to need help. “Our miners have lost their sense of identity and they could no longer provide for their families,” she said, pointing out the devastation many feel related to job loss.

Hackman said statistics show that anywhere from 1 in 4 to 1 in 3 Americans have some type of mental health disorder, such as situational anxiety or depression. “Having a mental health disorder is kind of like having a common cold,” he said. “We need to get it out there that asking for help when you need it is a good thing.”

Hanes said people also need to be made aware of how to access help. “Wyoming is very unique and very individualized,” he said, noting the sense of rugged individualism espoused by Wyomingites. However, he said people in Wyoming are also very quick to get defensive when outsiders criticize the state or its people, and suggested that common trait could be used to help people pull together to make a difference.

All three also said they hope the ARPA funds can be used not just to meet emergency needs now but to prepare for the future. Hanes said he hopes some of the funds are utilized for systemic improvement of the state’s existing programs to meet anticipated future needs. Hackman agreed, providing the example of the state’s recently created suicide crisis hotline, which can’t be staffed at all times because of funding constraints. He said there are times people will call the hotline and end up talking to someone out of state at a national hotline because the Wyoming line isn’t able to be staffed.

Huskinson said she hopes something is done to address healthcare access and affordability, especially with health insurance so often tied to employment, meaning that job loss is also healthcare loss. She also urged Wyomingites and particularly elected officials to “quit judging” those in need with “mean spirited” moves that hurt people, specifically mentioning Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s recent decision to end the state’s participation in the federal $300 supplemental unemployment insurance program.

“It’s so frustrating that the people that have can’t seem to see the people that don’t have. Not helping people costs more over the long term for everyone.”

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