It’s no secret that Montana is chronically short of mental-health-care workers.
According to figures compiled by Youth Dynamics, a nonprofit organization that provides statewide mental-health services, 13 Montana counties are without a single therapist, and 18 counties do not have a licensed addictions counselor.
This shortage is especially alarming in a state that consistently ranks in the top three states in the country for completed suicides.
Shari Morin-Degel, clinical director of residential services at Youth Dynamics, said multiple factors lead to high rates of depression and suicide in Montana.
“Montana, being such a rural state, has limited resources,” she said. “Many of our schools have limited access to extracurricular activities other than the competitive sports of basketball, football and volleyball. This makes it difficult for all kids to discover and nurture their strengths and find positive role models who offer hope. Another contributing factor is the seasonal element. Montana has long winters and limited sun exposure.”
Teri Jackson, Youth Dynamics’ clinical director of community services, said reluctance to ask for help is also a factor.
“One overarching issue is lack of community awareness, and this allows the stigma to continue,” she said. “Openness and willingness to share Montana’s plight and support community education is vital to create change and reduce this stigma that does exist. If our communities and residents do not know we have a problem, they cannot take action.”
“In addition,” Jackson said, “there is a high occurrence of alcohol abuse, which is a depressant that often begins with children in their teens and young adulthood with little to no intervention sought.”
And because of the shortage of professionals, people in rural communities who do seek help might be hundreds of miles from the nearest provider. Jan Knutson, Youth Dynamics’ human resources director, said she and the entire HR department are constantly posting openings on job sites, on social media and in newspapers.
In the meantime, some of the providers employed by Youth Dynamics travel great distances to meet with clients. Program manager Amanda Haller-Doris said one of their therapists travels 226 miles one way from Billings to Boulder each week to provide care at the organization’s Alternative Youth Adventures campus.
“It’s difficult to find people who enjoy living in the most remote and rural communities in Montana,” Morin-Degel said. “There are lots of people who wouldn’t mind traveling, but sometimes the time spent traveling makes it too expensive to be able to provide services in some areas. Also, during the winter, the roads can be dangerous, limiting consistent travel year round.”
To try to solve these problems, Youth Dynamics has started offering incentives to mental-health workers willing to settle down in rural Montana. It offers student loan repayment programs for graduates, and in some areas will pay for relocations costs and housing.
“We are continually researching new marketing and branding ideas to attract therapists through social media and online, both in and out of the state,” Morin-Degel said. “We’re always open to more ideas.”
Katherine Gerten, the public relations coordinator for Youth Dynamics, said the organization’s mission is pretty clear.
“We’re ready to take on the challenges to be able to help people in rural communities because in a lot of communities there’s nobody else there,” she said. “A lot of these kids and families do without any support. The ironic part for me is when you go into those rural communities there’s almost more people that need help than in the larger cities. We just have to work really hard to get the staff to support all of them.”
Morin-Degel said people need to be reminded that help is available, even if professionals are not immediately at hand. Anyone can call Youth Dynamics to find out what services and support are available in each community, she said, and the internet is an invaluable source of free information.
“And of course,” she added, “the very best thing to do is reach out to a caring person.”
Jackson recommended that people suffering from mental health problems also pay a visit to their primary doctor. She said a person’s physical health can contribute to mental health problems. Getting at least eight hours of sleep, maintaining an exercise regimen and eating three nutritional meals a day can all help as well.
One of the biggest challenges is still dealing with widespread perceptions of mental illnesses.
“People with a mental illness are not more likely to be violent than the general population,” Jackson said. “In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence. Reducing fear and increasing awareness will hopefully increase others’ ability to be sensitive, kind and caring towards people with a mental illness. I don’t know of anyone who would tell a person who has cancer to ‘buckle down’ or ‘get over it.’ Being supportive and providing reassurance is easy and can make all the difference to someone having difficulty managing their illness, even if they are not ready to talk about it.”
Youth Dynamics encourages people who are suffering mentally to check out their Facebook page or contact their community education coordinator at 406-245-6539 for information on classes they can attend. More information can be found on the Youth Dynamics website or by calling 877-458-7022. Youth Dynamics never turns a child or family away.