There are few issues as seemingly apolitical as suicide prevention and mental health. But that has not been the case in Wisconsin over the past few months, where funding for these vital areas has been the source of political rifts.
The first blow-up occurred when the number of mental-health vouchers for farmers and their families dwindled down to just five. The legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) would not release further funds even though it had already approved $200,000 in the state budget signed in July.
Likewise, JFC withheld $220,000 allocated for a state suicide-prevention texting helpline operated by the nonprofit Center for Suicide Awareness headquartered in Kaukauna. On both these matters, Democrats stressed urgency, while Republicans indicated funding should not be allocated until the Speaker’s Task Force on Suicide Prevention had put out its report.
“We had a meeting at the end of July where this should have been on the agenda,” says JFC member state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point), citing the urgency of suicide prevention. “I pointed out there was no reason in the world to withhold that funding for more than one and a half months.”
On Wednesday, the task force unveiled its report after touring the state holding meetings and public hearings from April through September.
“In 2017, 918 individuals died by suicide in Wisconsin,” task force chair Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) stated in a press release. “Nearly 5,000 others made a suicide attempt. It’s clear we must do more.”
The ‘minority report’
The task force’s 10 recommendations have been turned into a series of bill drafts. The fact that gun safety was not directly addressed, despite overwhelming testimony on the topic, resulted in four Democrats on the committee filing their own minority task force report. They also sent out a press release giving the task force a grade of “I for incomplete,” saying it was inexcusable to avoid tackling the issue of gun safety given that firearms are used in roughly half of all suicides in Wisconsin, as well as nationwide. (A call to Ballweg for a response to the minority report and gun issues was not returned by publication time.)
In particular, Democrats wanted to see Extreme Risk Protection Orders, also known as red-flag laws, where friends and relatives can petition a court to remove firearms from people who might present a danger to themselves or others.
“Over and over and over during the meetings we heard about the relationship between guns and suicide,” says Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee). “The stories came from rural and more populated areas, veterans, farmers, cops — all across the board.”
Brostoff recalls when the committee heard testimony about people who jumped off a bridge to end their lives. A Republican committee member responded by immediately asking what resources it would take to put up barriers and remove access to the bridge area.
“It was a really telling moment because all of a sudden we were talking as group about how to remove the means of the suicide,” Brostoff adds. “Yet it was so disheartening that when it came to guns, there was a complete unwillingness to look at the means of suicide.”
Assembly Democratic leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) punched hard in his response to the task force report: “The bottom line is that indefensible adherence to extreme ideology on gun violence is a bigger priority for Republicans than reducing the number of suicides.”
The Gun Shop Project
Vice-chair of the task force Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska) was not one of the Democrats to sign on to the minority report, although he agrees that the subject of suicide with firearms was brought up frequently in testimony and not adequately addressed.
“We had hoped we’d have a discussion to see if we could find common ground,” says Doyle. “But that did not happen.”
The only recommendation from the task force that mentions guns is a proposal called The Gun Shop Project, which offers firearm retailers training on “how to recognize and avoid selling or renting firearms to people who may be considering suicide.” Such projects often involve firearm retailers distributing suicide-prevention materials and offering voluntary storage of firearms in a safe. The bill draft allocates $150,000 for grants to train staff, distribute materials or provide storage.
Doyle’s other disappointment was the allocation of only around $2.5 million when other past task forces have had double that amount. He hopes in the future to have the state fund Wisconsin-specific suicide hotlines that match the callers with someone in the state who is also in their specific field, such as another veteran, farmer or law-enforcement officer.
That said, Doyle says that the task force “agreed on most of the issues and it was a good bipartisan effort and will result in introducing a package of bills that will realistically save some lives.”
Other recommendations include:
- A two-person team focused on suicide training, research, coordination, outreach and awareness at the Department of Health Services. They will file an annual report with the legislature.
- $250,000 each year of the biennium for grants of up to $10,000 to organizations or local governments for suicide prevention programs.
- Information regarding suicide prevention and crisis support hotlines on student identification cards.
- $50,000 a year for farmer tuition assistance grants for low-income farmers who enroll in a technical college course on farm and business management.
- A new, two-year interim psychologist license without the current experience requirements due to the dearth of mental health professionals.
Small signs of progress
Circumventing the long legislative process to get funds to the suicide HOPELINE could be a breakthrough.
“It is the recommendation of the task force that the Joint Committee on Finance approve a motion that requires DHS to award a grant to a nonprofit organization to support staff, training, and expenses related to operating a text-based or application-based suicide prevention program and that appropriates $110,000 annually for that purpose,” wrote Ballweg (along with vice chair Doyle) to JFC co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), also on Wednesday.
Previously Republican legislators said it would take a bill to release that funding. But a change was made in the hours leading up to the unveiling of the task force’s recommendations, says Brostoff, to say it could be done solely with action by the JFC.
Barb Bigalke, executive director of the Center for Suicide Awareness, who had expressed disappointment and concern over the hold up for the texting HOPELINE funding, could not be reached for immediate comment.
Doyle is heartened by that change and co-signed the letter with Ballweg to GOP leadership. He urges immediate action: “I believe Joint Finance could solve that over the next few days. There’s unanimous agreement that we need to get this done. Take a quick vote, get the money released and start saving lives.”
If you or someone you care about needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Wisconsin HOPELINE at 741741.