Mental-health clinic eyes nonprofit shift to access resources

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In February, the patient waiting list at Sweetgrass Psychological Services in Whitefish hit 150 people, which is a crisis figure that founder Sara Boilen said equates to about a three-year wait time.

That uptick in patients, which is a sting felt by many organizations in Flathead County offering services in mental health and wellness, was a final tipping point for Boilen in transforming Sweetgrass into a nonprofit — a longtime vision that is now taking shape some five years since launching the much-needed clinic.

“If it were socially acceptable, our motto at Sweetgrass would be to ‘do good work and don’t be greedy,’” Boilen said. “And if that is our working model, then a nonprofit feels like an obvious choice in figuring out how to best serve the community.”

Boilen said she is still unsure as to whether Sweetgrass as a whole would become a nonprofit or if a separate “nonprofit arm” would be created — a decision that is still in the works and requires consideration of multiple stakeholders, including the clinic’s staff members.

There are many advantages to becoming a nonprofit, with one of the most significant being added opportunities for grant funding, which Boilen and her partner in the nonprofit launch, Katie Boyd, say there are plenty of in Montana for mental-health services. They say funding will develop goals for the new nonprofit they plan on tackling through the Sweetgrass Initiative for Thriving Communities, a group that aims to reduce barriers to mental-health treatment in Montana, while simultaneously improving wellness in communities.

“In Montana there are so few agencies doing this sort of work that a lot of that money goes under-spent,” Boyd said. “The nice thing about a grant is that they don’t just give you the money if you don’t have a plan; you have to say ‘I have this plan and these people’ which we are already seeing come together.”

In order to incorporate, the organization also needs to form a board of directors, which Boilen and Boyd aim to fill with counselors, teachers and others in the Flathead community and beyond that can offer a variety of perspectives on mental wellness throughout the Valley and elsewhere. Five board members are needed; they officially have three. As part of the Sweetgrass Initiative, they also are working to create an advisory committee made up of leaders in the mental-health industry in local, rural and hopefully tribal communities that can offer expertise in similar organizations and have a vested interest in Sweetgrass in general and progressing mental wellness in Montana.

“I think my 10-year vision for the advisory council is to fill the gap of having no collaboration between resources in this area,” Boilen said. “Maybe we can have all these people come together and Sweetgrass can help house those discussions on how to move forward with serving the needs of those communities.”

Ultimately, the Sweetgrass Initiative was created to provide a forum of sorts for tackling three challenges collaboratively, instead of in silos: the daunting need for additional resources to meet the needs in the Flathead and beyond, the challenge of reaching underserved communities in more rural areas and barriers to recruiting additional psychologists and other skilled professionals to the area.

Boilen plans on addressing these issues through three main “channels.”

The first is a scholarship fund for clients. For example, many in need who live in rural areas and can’t afford to commute to clinics could apply for a travel stipend, scholarship or some other coverage for travel costs. Second, for those who can’t travel at all, Boilen hopes to eventually secure a mobile unit that can provide regular services to those remote locations from St. Ignatius to Libby and Browning, and everywhere in between.

“We have things pretty bad in the Flathead, but sometimes it is nothing compared to how bad others have it in the remote areas surrounding this valley,” Boilen said.

Lastly, Boilen wants to focus on creating and sustaining a post-doctoral fellowship program in order to attract new specialists into the area. The fellowship program would act similarly to residency programs at hospitals, in that those finishing out their training and education can do so at the clinic and with other partners throughout the Flathead Valley where, hopefully, they may choose to remain at the end.

Similar methods happen at Kalispell Regional Medical Center and other hospitals throughout Montana where it has been historically difficult to recruit and retain specialists. Boilen said her immediate intentions are to attract and train those interested in providing psychological assessments, which is a service that only a handful of clinics in the valley provide, Sweetgrass included.

According to Boilen, the lengthy waiting list at Sweetgrass is comprised almost solely of children in need of assessments to determine, for example, if one falls within the autism spectrum or has ADHD.

“If that kid is 8 now, by the time we are able to get around to doing their evaluation three years from now, they will be a completely different child,” Boilen said. “This is a significant need that is going unmet. Almost every single kid who has received an assessment so far has needed it.”

The path to becoming a nonprofit has been a long one, and moving forward, Boilen said she hopes other mental-health providers see the shift as one that is very community-oriented. She, as well as other providers in the Flathead, say it’s a need that will be difficult to meet without extensive teamwork and streamlining of resources.

The Flathead Valley, as well as much of Montana, consistently ranks as one of the worst states for access to mental-health services. There are far too many people in need, and not enough resources to go around.

In recent years, cuts to the Montana state budget shuttered multiple mental health facilities in the greater Flathead area. AWARE Inc., closed the doors of its Kalispell office and Western Montana Mental Health Center, which is the nonprofit largest mental-health center in the state, announced the shutting down of its campuses in Dillon and Libby. The center was Libby’s only mental health facility in the area, which is one known for its high level of need.

To learn more about the Sweetgrass Initiative for Thriving Communities or to speak with someone about upcoming collaborative events, Boilen can be reached at 662-1771.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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