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Help rebuild Montana’s behavioral health and developmental disabilities systems

by Bob Keenan, Charlie Brereton and John Esp
| November 12, 2023 12:00 AM

No Montana community is untouched by the mental health crisis.

Suicide. Addiction. Loneliness. The struggle to find mental health services or appropriate supports for individuals with developmental disabilities. Patients receiving care in places that aren’t best for them. 

The list of challenges facing our communities is long and years in the making, and the time for setting that list aside is over.

 This spring, Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Montana Legislature invested $300 million to reform and improve Montana’s behavioral health and developmental disabilities service systems. It is the largest investment of its kind in state history.

 As members of the Behavioral Health System for Future Generations (BHSFG) Commission, we are charged with providing recommendations on how to best utilize this historic investment. With backgrounds as service providers, legislators, and state officials, we take this responsibility seriously. But we can’t do it alone.

For the foreseeable future, we will hold public meetings every six to eight weeks across Montana to consider reforms and gather information from community stakeholders, many of whom have direct experience with individuals living with behavioral health conditions or developmental disabilities. All meetings include the opportunity for valuable public comment.

At the three meetings held since July, judges, county attorneys, sheriffs, jail commanders, family members, suicide prevention experts, hospital psychiatrists, community-based behavioral health and developmental disabilities service providers, tribal officials, crisis response teams, key stakeholders, and state officials came together to share experiences from the field, and most importantly, offer long-term solutions.  

In a recent meeting in Missoula, we heard compassionate testimony from providers about the immense struggles they face in serving families dealing with mental health crises and other similar issues. It’s clear our communities are hurting, and the systems currently in place simply can’t keep up.

This is our chance to make a meaningful difference in expanding and integrating community-based behavioral health care and developmental disabilities services in Montana, and to help improve the quality of services offered at the Montana State Hospital and other state-run health care facilities.

Already, we adopted two recommendations for consideration by the governor. One is to address the backlog of court-ordered mental health evaluations across the state, and the other is to increase residential bed capacity in adult behavioral health, developmental disabilities, and children’s mental health service areas.

Our next meeting will be in Kalispell over two days from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1 and will provide members of the public, service providers, and other important stakeholders with another opportunity to weigh in on how we can best assist communities and lay the foundation for multi-year reform.

Additional meeting dates and locations will be announced online at futuregenerations.mt.gov.

We encourage all Montanans to join us and make your voices heard as more recommendations are brought forward. Our work is only beginning. Together, we can use this investment to help our neighbors in need – both now and for future generations.

Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, is the chairman of the BHSFG Commission and sponsor of HB 872. Charlie Brereton is director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and co-chairman of the BHSFG Commission. Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, is a member of the BHSFG Commission and co-sponsored HB 872.