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New Coalition Aims To Address Mental Health, Substance Use Challenges In Big Sky

 A young woman holds her head in her hands.
A young woman holds her head in her hands.

A new coalition in Big Sky is gearing up to expand behavioral health services, reduce stigma around mental health and addiction, and help people navigate their options for care.

Ciara Wolfe, Vice President of Philanthropy for the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, said people in Big Sky knew there was a growing behavioral health problem in the community, but a report released last year “highlighted that our community is really in crisis around this. We have significant needs and very under-resourced services to be able to address those needs.”

The report identified social isolation, a high cost of living and big wealth gap, and a culture of drug and alcohol use as some of the factors leading to an increase in suicides and drug and alcohol overdoses in Big Sky. It also outlined some of the barriers people encounter when trying to get care, like not knowing where to turn for help and having to drive an hour to Bozeman to see a therapist.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up more tele-health options, Wolfe said the stress, anxiety and isolation from the last year has only exacerbated the mental health crisis.

"Not just for us as a community, the whole state and the whole nation. So those things compounding made us say, ‘We’ve got to put something in action, formalize it and really take some steps to address this head on as the community,'" Wolfe said.

The Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, Western Montana Mental Health Center and Bozeman Health formed the Big Sky Behavioral Health Coalition in Nov. and opened its office in Big Sky Town Center last month.

The coalition’s goal is to be one point of contact to help people navigate their care and insurance options, reduce stigma through community wide campaigns and events, provide scholarships to people who need help covering their costs and recruit therapists and other health providers.

“We’re trying to address the entire spectrum from the wellness and prevention aspect from youth all the way through to the critical treatment that is occurring in our emergency room,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said the coalition is in the process of recruiting a behavioral health program officer who will help connect people to the right services and providers and be the liaison between all the partners and the public.

Since the coalition formed, Big Sky Medical Center has started providing free community-wide depression screenings and outreach to families to help identify warnings of suicide risk. The hospital has brought on a psychiatric advanced practice nurse and 24/7 tele-psychiatric consultation.

Big Sky Medical Center has also contracted with Western Montana Mental Health Center to bring in a part time child and adult psychiatrist.

“That was something that’s come out of this coalition. They didn’t have anyone before,” Michael Foust, Western Montana Mental Health Center’s Executive Director said.

Foust said one of benefits of forming the coalition was that it started a conversation "about what we needed to do to take care of the very unique needs of Big Sky. That’s the most important thing the coalition is doing.”

The coalition is modeled after some other resort communities that have been successful in tackling similar behavioral health challenges, including Vail, Colorado and Park City, Utah, but with a lot of local input.

Foust said involving the community from the ground up is what makes the coalition unique.

“This initiative is taking shape and form in a way that’s going to meet Big Sky’s need. That’s a neat concept because a lot of people just try to plug and play something before they actually do the due diligence to make sure it fits culturally with the individuals that you’re serving,” Foust said.

Ciara Wolfe with the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation said Big Sky Behavioral Health Coalition is working with multiple committees made up of educators, parents and youth, first responders and health providers, employers, seniors and people whose first language is not English.

The Yellowstone Club Community Foundation and federal COVID-19 relief dollars have provided funds to start the coalition. In the future, the Moonlight Community Foundation, Spanish Peaks Community Foundation, grants and the Big Sky resort tax could help cover ongoing operational costs.

Until the program officer for the Big Sky Behavioral Health Coalition is up and running, Wolfe recommends anyone in Big Sky who needs help to call 211, a 24-hour crisis line, or Big Sky Medical Center for direct care.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, the current national hotline number is 1-800-273-TALK. That is 1-800-273-8255

Copyright 2021 Yellowstone Public Radio

Rachel is a UM grad working in the MTPR news department.
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