The adolescent brain is a fascinating and rapidly-evolving place. As young adults grow more independent, face greater social and academic challenges, and navigate new choices, there are many instances in which they need support. According to a recent study, 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health condition, and up to 30% of all young adults will suffer at least one significant depressive episode before adulthood.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among American adolescents; each year, up to 1 million young adults (between ages 15 and 24) attempt suicide. Factors that make young adults more vulnerable to serious mental health challenges are many: poverty, lack of access to mental health resources, stigma, living in a rural area, and more. New research is beginning to uncover links between living at high altitudes and mental health, too.
It’s no surprise, then, that many young adults across Wyoming have significant needs when it comes to mental health support, navigating the aftermath of trauma, or recovering from mistakes that have had big consequences. Fortunately, the Wyoming Youth Services Association (WYSA) is a collaborative constellation of over 15 agencies across the state that offer a diverse array of services to support Wyoming’s young adults — no matter how staggering the challenges they and their families face.
Last year alone, this network served 3,878 youth across the Cowboy State. The average age of those assisted was 14.5 years old. And thanks to their dedication and excellent work, 73% of these young adults returned home or to a less-restrictive placement after their work with a member agency.
“I have worked with and/or been a member of WYSA for over 30 years. During that time, I have seen these programs help thousands of young people reduce the trauma they carry and reconnect with their families,” reflects Bruce Burkland, Director of WYSA and former Executive Director for Teton Youth & Family Services. “These services have saved the State of Wyoming millions of dollars. More important, it has made the childrens’ lives more productive and happier and happy productive people result in communities that are better for everyone.”
The breadth of services that these agencies offer to Wyoming families is astonishing. They include individual, group, and family therapy, case management, evaluation, aftercare, daily living skill development, parenting classes, early intervention resources, medication management, therapeutic wildlife experiences, healthcare services, referrals to other community resources, suicide prevention, substance abuse evaluation and treatment, victim advocacy, and many more. Why this really matters? It’s simple: no two families, no two kids are the same, and their treatment plans should be as unique as they are.
Key components of the WYSA agencies include Crisis Shelters, Group Homes, and Residential Treatment Centers. Last year, over 1300 Wyoming youth were sheltered in a Crisis Shelter; on average, they stayed around 11 days, and over 90% of the time were able to return home or to a less-restrictive environment. Group Homes served 260 young adults, who stayed an average of around 100 days. Similarly, nearly all of these adolescents had great outcomes — they were able to return home to their families, or to another program that was even less restrictive.
In other words, the agencies that comprise WYSA are — without doubt — changing and saving lives.
In late May, WYSA members gathered in Jackson Hole for a two-day conference exploring the achievements and challenges that they face. “Thanks to Rendevous Mountain Rentals’ generosity, we had a wonderful place to meet and had a very productive meeting. Ten of the seventeen members were able to attend,” says Bruce. “ Five members were unable to be there due to shortages in staffing which required they be at their facilities to work childcare shifts.” (WYSA agencies employ around 620 people across the state, but current staffing shortages have left them short by nearly 70 individuals.)
This shortage, Bruce observes, is one of WYSA’s largest challenges at the moment.
“Programs are operating at reduced capacity, and several have waiting lists, because they cannot hire and retain enough childcare workers and/or therapists. Programs have continued to operate throughout the pandemic but initially there was a reduction in clients and staff. The combination of youth and families not getting help when they needed it and Covid’s impact on increasing tension and isolation for youth and their families has resulted in an increase in need and referrals. At the same time, programs are receiving, on average, 20% less than they did 5 years ago while cost of living and especially housing has increased dramatically. The end result is programs do not have the income to hire staff to meet the need.”
Funding for WYSA programs comes from a variety of sources, including the Department of Family Services, Department of Health, Department of Education, Town and County governments, Federal, State, and private grants, and direct philanthropic donations.
“While the programs struggle with funding and staffing, the stability and dedication of the senior staff of these programs is the amazing strength that keeps them going. Most have worked with and assisted youth and families for well over a decade. The individuals and the programs are well accepted, appreciated and have positive working relationships within their communities. The programs continue to have great results,” he says.
The Hughes Charitable Foundation is proud to contribute to multiple agencies that are members of WYSA, and support their tireless efforts to provide excellent services to young people and their families. “This absolutely critical network of programs impacts so many lives in so many places around Wyoming,” says Molly Hughes, Executive Director of the Hughes Charitable Foundation. “The interventions and resources that they’re able to offer undoubtedly save lives and set next generations up for happiness and success. It’s an investment in Wyoming’s future, one life, one family at at time.”
Bruce says that despite the challenges, the group will forge ahead in delivering all the care and support possible to those who need it most. “WYSA believes we need to improve the continuum of care for Wyoming’s youth and their families. We will continue to work with all public and private parties to stabilize the services we presently have as mentioned above. We need to increase programming and thus funding for prevention services so youth needing our more intense services can be reduced over time, and we need to develop services for high-need youth who require special facilities, programming and staffing.”
This constellation of dedicated, compassionate experts is determined to serve Wyoming’s youth as best they can. Despite tough times, their commitment to timely and high-quality intervention in adolescent lives is truly ensuring that our communities and our state will have a bright future.