Montana Public Radio

Billings Clinic Receives Major Donation For Montana's First Psychiatry Residency Program

Dec 10, 2018

Montana’s first-ever medical residency program for psychiatrists received a quarter-million-dollar gift Monday. Advocates are hopeful that establishing residencies will grow the number of mental health professionals in the state.

Until recently, Montana was one of only three states in the country without a program to train psychiatrists. The other two, Alaska and Wyoming, are also among the top three places for suicides per capita - Montana is at the top of that list.

“Montana likes being number one, but not for this,” says John Doran with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana.

Doran announced the $250,000 donation to the new Billings Clinic psychiatry residency program in Helena, Monday.

“Montana is in a mental health crisis. We have had too many heartbreaking stories of people losing hope. The reality is, mental illness is just like any other physical ailment, and we need to begin to treat it as such.”

Billings Clinic announced its psychiatry training program through the University of Washington in September.

The quarter-million-dollar gift from Blue Cross Blue Shield starts to build on the Billings Clinic Foundation’s goal for a $3.3 million endowment to fund the residency program into the future.

A grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust is getting the new residency program off the ground, but Billings Clinic officials say it will run at a half-million dollar loss a year until a long-term funding source is found.

Doctor Julie Kelso, the program’s director, says Montana falls well below the national average for psychiatrists available to residents.

Across the country, there are about 14 trained psychiatrists for every 100,000 people. Kelso says in Montana there’s seven.

“So this is going to be a way for us to get more psychiatrists in the state.”

The inaugural three-person class of the behavioral health residents will start working in Montana in 2021, after completing the first two years of their schooling in Seattle.

Kelso expects most of the residents to stay in Montana when they finish their final two years of their training, here.

“In other programs, about 70 percent of residents stayed in the states where they trained.”

Once the residents start in Montana, Kelso says they’ll rotate through rural hospitals, on Native American reservations, state correctional facilities and work with veterans.

According to the Billings Clinic, the psychiatry residency program’s first class received more than 400 applications.