Event shines light on Mental Health Awareness

Lisa Kunkel

Saturday’s Mental Health and Fitness Fair raised awareness for the importance of mental health and focused on the value of being a “Pick-Up Man” for others. Over 100 people attended the event at the Shell Community Hall. 

It was hosted through a collaboration of the Big Horn County Citizens for Economic Development (BCED), The WyomingLifeline, Big Horn County Prevention Alliance and Big Horn Basin Counseling Services. Plus partnership from from local community groups, service providers, churches, and organizations who presented multiple tables of resource information

“I’ve never been at an event where the audience was so attentive. It was very quiet,” said Stan Flitner, event organizer and member of the BCED board. “It was put together well. It was a huge success.”

The day opened with networking, a delectable lunch, and resource gathering. Panelists (Carol Bell, Dr. Ralph Louis, and Mark Moore) took center stage after introductions by organizers Patty Flynn Elliot, Barb Fielder, Flitner, and Lisa Kunkel. 

Prepared with questions ahead of time, each panelist talked about their own journey through mental health in the seasons of their lives. They talked about the stigmas surrounding the topic and learning the signs of when our mental being needs to be addressed. Acknowledging that our mental health is a complex issue that needs far-reaching solutions. 

Carol Bell, formerly of the Shell Valley, spoke from her perspective and shared her experiences. She is a provisionally licensed therapist at Foundations Counseling in Cody. “It was such a privilege to be a part of the Mental Health gathering in Shell. People asked such great questions, and they seemed hungry for the information. I was surprised and inspired by the turnout and the enthusiasm of all of the participants,” she said. 

“I've learned a lot about mental health the hard way--by finding myself struggling with depression or prolonged grief or anxiety because I was afraid to admit to myself that I was struggling. It felt meaningful to me to share my own struggles and my painfully earned knowledge with folks who were wanting to be proactive about their mental health. And being on the panel with professionals like Mark and Ralph, both of whom have a longer experience in the field of mental health, added to my learning,” Bell said. “It was fun to be a part of such a well-balanced panel and to feel like we each had something important and different to contribute.”

Dr. Ralph Louis, of Big Horn Basin Counseling in Basin, was the moderator and led a thoughtful conversation with real-life applications that attendees could learn from. When asked about the reason why Wyoming has the highest rate of suicide in the Nation he said, “We live in an isolated state. Access to services is challenging. We live in a culture of taking care of ourselves, pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. But we need to ask early for help.” He went on to add, “It is a mix of culture, geographic isolation and personalities; because we are different people than in other places.”

Mark Moore, formerly of Basin now residing in Sheridan, delivered a heartfelt testimony of what it was like growing up in this corner of Wyoming and how his journey through life's indulgences and mental health awareness led him to Jesus Christ. With a past involving runs with law enforcement, Moore has now turned his life around and is a peer support specialist in Sheridan helping others find a better way to live. 

Answering a question from the crowd about how to get through tough times, Moore talked about instead of “Fake it till you make it,” try “Face it till you make it.” 

BCED chairman Bill Hayes said, “I was impressed with Mark and his testimonial.  Comments from folks afterward were very positive and this type of event should be done again in another time and location. This subject is a topic that needs to be discussed. They did not get through all the questions, so we know it is a pertinent subject.”

After a short break and a healthy snack of nuts and chocolate, the group gathered to hear from three local speakers who shared specific strategies and habits that can help people take proactive measures to increase mental health wellness and fitness. 

Alta Clarke spoke about the importance of nutrition and how it ties to one's mental health. She touched on the feeling of being ‘hangry’ where one is angry and hungry at the same time. “It’s a good indication your body needs vitamins and nutrients,” she said. “Think of food as a front-end medicine. We are overfed and under-nourished.”

Acknowledging that this takes effort, Clarke gave these three practical tips: try and incorporate five plant foods a meal or a day to add biodiversity and whole foods to your diet. Second, don’t multitask while you eat. “Instead, be intentional when you eat and be mindful,” Clarke said. Lastly, eat first thing in the morning. “Sometimes we don’t feel hungry but not eating will affect your hormone levels,” she added. 

Wendy Henderson shared her personal story about how breathwork has helped her weather the storms in her life. She led a group exercise of breathing in through your nose for five seconds, holding your breath at the top for five seconds, letting your breath out for five seconds, and sitting at the bottom for five seconds. Noting that this exercise is free and “no prescriptions are required.”

Henderson practices yoga, self-care, and meditation “to keep balanced.” Adding, “Stress is really our thoughts, our expectations of reality and that we can cause our own suffering.” 

Offering practical tips Henderson invited the crowd into the present moment. Not focusing on the worries of tomorrow. She shared a statistic that we have an average of 12,000 - 60,000 thoughts a day. Of that total 95% are repetitive and 80% are negative. 

“We can control our brain by going to our hearts and thinking what you’re grateful for,” Henderson said. 

Suzi Shelhammer talked about energy wellness. A self-proclaimed gadget girl, she offered demonstrations on her electro stimulation machine. Shelhammer and her husband Mitch run Serenity Wellness Retreat between Basin and Greybull. “We understand the difference of busy crazy lives and living in peace and harmony.  We want to share our knowledge of healthy eating, yoga, and  mindfulness with you to better your lives in the future,” she said. 

Krystal Crosby, a Community Project Manager for the local school’s Mental Health Grant, was one of the organizers and distributed resources with fellow peers from the local school districts. “The Mental Wellness Fair at Shell Hall was insightful and provided a good view into the mental health resources available in the area. I felt the best resource of the day was the panel responding to questions asked by attendees. It gave insight to what our fellow neighbors here in the basin have concerns about and the panel facilitated an easy way to address those concerns.”

“Lots of individuals have basic questions; How do I help my parents, friend or partner that is struggling? If I start therapy will I be there for the rest of my life? But then they don't know where to find those answers. I feel this event helped community members begin to open the door to those conversations in their homes and help them shift their perspective on how to have those conversations. Talking about mental health doesn't have to be taboo or hush hush. We just have to ask questions and patiently listen to what we hear in response. Of those that shared their personal experiences on Saturday, the overall message or theme was that when they started to share how they felt, life started to get better," Crosby said. 

In attendance were local elected officials and their representatives. New faces and people of all ages. Bright pops of yellow could be seen all over the room as feathers adorned hats, belts and collars. There were even yellow feather stickers custom designed by local artist Talysa Klein of Tk2 Design. 

Barbara Anne Greene, a board member of the Wyoming LifeLine which is run by Greybull’s Waller Hall Research, said, "The battle to get some of our legislators to understand the need for funding for mental health, including the 988 line is crucial. More than one legislator and also people within this county have said that church is the answer. I get it but not everyone will reach out to a church. The operators from the Wyoming LIfeLine have at their fingertips the contacts for all the churches. It is readily available and provided to the callers.”

She added, “This event went a long way in helping people understand that mental illness, suicide, etc. is not a question of someone being ‘weak.’ They are a health issue that needs to be addressed. If someone has cancer we don't tell them to ‘buck up.’ We shouldn't do that for mental health." 

Extra resources and free materials from the event are available at the Greybull Visitor’s Center. Economic Director Deanna Werner invites the public to pop-in and grab a yellow feather as part of the awareness campaign. Folks in Basin can stop by the Basin Chamber of Commerce for their yellow feather and free resources. 

BCED chose the yellow feather with inspiration from a Cheyenne Frontier Days campaign with Garth Brooks. The yellow feather is a sign of joy, optimism, hope, and looking forward to a bright future. Just like in the rodeo arena when things get difficult, the “Pick-Up Man” rides up to help. You can be that for your friends and family. 

Patty Flynn Elliot, event organizer and BCED board member siad, “The Mental Health and Fitness Fair on March 11th sent the message loud and clear that ‘there is no health without mental health’ and attention to our mental health needs the same focus and attention as our physical health. It is all interrelated and we can support one another with resources and information to increase our physical and mental wellness as we continue to bring the conversation to the forefront in our communities,” said Elliot. 

She went on to say, “It was a tremendous group effort that demonstrates the importance and interest in this topic, as well as demonstrating the dedication, commitment, talent and resources that exist in our local communities to support mental wellness.”