May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and at least two major human services organizations are trying to capitalize on increased awareness through a major fundraising campaign.
Teton Youth and Family Services (TYFS) operates several crisis-level facilities that care for vulnerable members of the Jackson Hole community. Executive director of the organization Sarah Cavallaro said she saw a 40% increase in need for residential services in 2021. The increase mirrors national trends that have unfolded during the pandemic. Mental illness among kids is also at an all-time high, according to the American Psychological Association.
“Kids aren’t supposed to be on their own and alone,” Cavallaro said. “This is like prime time. When children are children, it’s prime time development for their brain to be able to connect with other people and have those relationships.”
Not only is Cavallaro seeing more patients, she also said she’s seeing children with more severe symptoms of psychological distress. In the fall, two nine-year-olds checked into the emergency room at St. John’s Health because they were suicidal. That’s something Cavallaro said she had never seen before.
“We used to have kids that were, you know, more acting outward, like they’d throw chairs or they’d be more outwardly physical,” she said. “Pretty much all the kids that are coming to us right now are self-harming, suicidal [and/or] have experienced something in their life that has really kind of derailed them.”
Adults have also experienced mental distress since 2020. The global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. In Teton County, the nonprofit Community Safety Network (CSN) provides support for those affected by sexual assault and domestic violence. The organization’s Director of Education and Prevention Adrian Croke said she’s seen double the calls to its hotline in the past two years.
“During the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about gender-based violence and people being stuck at home with their abusers. And yes, that is very real,” Croke said. “Also, what we saw in terms of clients seeking our support were just all of these compounding stressors that affect us all. But add on to that victimization or healing from an abusive relationship.”
In order to turn these trends around, Croke stresses the importance of prevention care, or investing in mental health before things escalate to something more serious or dangerous. Examples of prevention care in the field of human services include after-school anti-violence programs and therapy access.
“We know that there is a strong connection between people who experience violence and trauma at a young age and either go on to enact violence on others on themselves or experience re-victimization, meaning they experience violence again and again as they grow up,” Croke said. “So, if we invest in prevention, we can change that.”
CSN and TYFS are partnering to jointly fundraise for early intervention methods through their new campaign Growing Stronger Together.
Cavallaro said not only does prevention keep more kids from developing a serious mental illness, it can also save the Jackson community money long-term. 85% of the children TYFS serves in residential centers don’t go onto higher levels of care, and there’s room for her organization to grow. Nationally, half the children with mental health disorders are not treated, but Cavallaro said, hopefully, Teton County residents can find resources to get the help they need through increased awareness of local programs.
“COVID was terrible and awful for most people, but the silver lining in that is it has brought us all to a common denominator on some level,” she said.
TYFS did get a 3% bump in state funding during this year’s legislative session, a reversal of previous years defined by cuts. However, only 28% of Cavallaro’s budget currently comes from the State of Wyoming, compared to 80% in 2011. Meanwhile, mental health providers are struggling to keep the lights on across much of the rest of the state.
“It’s because of local support that we are still here,” Cavallaro said. “And that is not the case around the state. And I think that’s something that doesn’t get talked about a ton because we are very, very fortunate to be here. And it’s sad that programs go away because that has been the direction of the legislature.”
Money donated to Growing Stronger Together will go toward maintaining staff and programming of the two organizations. Croke said the partnership was an obvious one and that she hopes their combined efforts will lead to larger donations.