SHERIDAN — A report released by the Wyoming Community Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation last week that compares child well-being among states shows Wyoming compares well in several categories but is one of the lowest ranked states when it comes to child health care.
The 2018 KIDS COUNT Data Book ranks Wyoming 18th overall which, places it well above the national average. That ranking has four components, and Wyoming is ranked highly in three of them. Wyoming is sixth in the country in economic well-being, 25th in education and seventh in family and community. However, when it comes to the fourth component of the ranking, health, Wyoming ranks 49th in the country.
The report considers four factors in assigning Wyoming’s health ranking: low birth-weight babies, child and teen deaths, children without health insurance and teens abusing drugs and alcohol.
The 2018 data book uses data from 2016 and compares it to Wyoming’s rankings in 2010. Samin Dadelahi, CEO of the Wyoming Community Foundation, said Wyoming’s numbers in those four categories remained static between 2010 and 2016 while nationally, most states improved over that period.
Dr. Mary Bowers, a pediatrician at Goose Creek Pediatrics, said the issues identified in the report conform to her experiences locally.
Bowers said birth weights in Sheridan County are generally healthy, though there have been episodic flare ups of low birth-weights due mostly to increases in the use of drugs like methamphetamine.
The high teen death rate, Bowers said, is reflected in Sheridan County and is a result of teen suicides. Wyoming has the fourth highest suicide rate in the country and Bowers said the rate is highest among teens, who are more likely to suffer from acute depression.
Wyoming as a state is coping with a shortage of mental health care professionals, particularly in rural communities. Bowers said there are several factors that can contribute to teen suicides.
Teens who do not see themselves as part of the mainstream society are already at a high risk for suicide and that risk is multiplied if the teen lives in an isolated rural community. In addition, she said the culture around the state traditionally has not embraced mental health care, particularly counseling. She said that culture is changing, but slowly.
Furthermore, Bowers said teens will often blow negative experiences out of proportion and become temporarily depressed.
“All kinds of healthy, popular, mainstream, happy kids [attempt suicide] because their boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with them right before prom,” Bowers said. “They see it as a cataclysmic event even though in retrospect they come to realize it isn’t life changing.”
The prevalence of guns in the state, Bowers noted, also contributes as some teens have more access to a means of killing themselves.
Because Wyoming has fewer mental health resources to offer teens, and teens have more access to guns, Bowers said more of those episodes result in suicide than in other states.
Seasonal depression is also a real concern in the state. Bowers pointed out that Montana, South Dakota and Alaska also have very high suicide rates.
“We all have way too much winter,” Bowers said. “And that’s isolating too. People tend to feel hopeless and receive less Vitamin D, which affects their mood.”
When it comes to teens abusing drugs and alcohol, Bowers said issues with drug use among teens are less severe in Sheridan County than in other parts of the country, but there are frequent cases of teens abusing alcohol. She added that oftentimes those issues stem from mental health concerns.
The report also shows 9 percent of children in the state do not have health insurance. Bowers said that trend is also evident locally.
Both Dadelahi and Bowers pointed to Medicaid expansion as a possible solution for expanding coverage, but state lawmakers have been resistant to that idea in the past. In 2016, the state Senate rejected a Medicaid expansion bill despite support from Gov. Matt Mead. The report shows the number of uninsured children in Wyoming increased between 2010 and 2016, while nationally the number of uninsured children was cut in half during the same period. During that time, 33 states voted to implement Medicaid expansion.