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Experts offer insights into assisting those in mental health crisis

Navigating the mental health care system and connecting to resources can oftentimes be difficult, but experts say there are measures that can be taken to support someone dealing with a mental health crisis.

When asked what to do for someone in that situation, the panelists during a Mental Health Symposium Thursday said in a perfect world, it would start with preventive measures that would hopefully stop a crisis from occurring in the first place.

If it’s too late for preventive measures, it is still important to slow down and listen when someone is in crisis, the group told the audience at the Gateway Community Center. The event was part of a series of events held this month in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month in May.

“When people’s lives are out of control … try to give them control over everything they can have a say over,” said Drew Buckner with Braveheart Ministries. “That means if we’re with them, let them make decisions instead of making them for them. Like, ‘would you like to sit down or keep standing?’ ‘Would you like water or a coffee?’”

Buckner, who is often called on by emergency responders to be a stand-by chaplain in difficult situations, said it’s important to be with the person who is in crisis.

Speaking on these topics, in addition to Buckner, were some of the primary people who respond to mental health crises in the valley: Paula Sullivan with the Crisis Intervention Team Montana, Sarah Winfrey, mental health co-responder for local law enforcement and Colby Wood, Logan Health emergency room crisis interventionist.

Preventative measures regarding a mental health crisis can include assessing someone’s needs, spending time with them and asking if they think reaching out to talk to someone would help. A safety plan, which is most effective when designed ahead of a crisis, is designed to help people struggling with suicidal ideation to know what to do if they feel like they are on the precipice of hurting themselves, they said.

Helping someone deal with a low-risk crisis is manageable without immediate intervention from medical staff or law enforcement, but would be necessary in situations where someone seems likely to hurt themselves or others, the speakers noted.

Winfrey said if someone is dealing with anxiety or depression, struggling with self-worth or feeling overwhelmed, they can call 988 to be connected with trained mental health professionals in Missoula at any hour of the day.

She also suggested people helping loved ones through crisis reach out to peer support groups, such as the Flathead National Alliance for Mental Illness family support groups.

Organizer Leanna Troesh, who sits on a Montana Mental Health Service Area Authority board, suggested the symposium to better help connect community members with resources.

“This is us building unity, this is bringing us together and showing people we’re here to support them. There are things we can’t control, we can’t control the big issues that are out there, but we can start at this grassroots level in the community,” Troesh said.

LOOKING AT youth mental health, Jeff Folsom with Family Voice Curious, a University of Montana program that seeks to better intertwine a child’s treatment with their family, their own skills and cultural context, draws from what he’s learned working with the children in the past.

All of their situations were unique to them, their upbringings and their families — which helped lead him to the conclusion that it’s more effective to work “from the inside out” when looking at how to help young people struggling with mental and behavioral health.

“If we engage them (families) as partners and we bring them in, that’s where systemic changes are … When I say ‘families’, I mean a meaningful network of support, not just biological mom and dad … that’s going to drive where we should be headed in the system and what we should be doing,” Folsom said.

Looking at what lies ahead for youth mental health in the state, Department of Public Health and Human Services Child Mental Health Bureau Chief Meghan Peel said the agency is working on increasing access to mental health services, measuring outcomes, prioritizing families and strengthening the workforce.

She said measuring outcomes can be tricky in behavioral health, where it can take many years to heal from trauma.

“During the legislative session, I was asked time and time again, ‘how do you know this works?’ … It takes time to heal and it’s not as easy to measure outcomes for behavioral health. It’s not like getting a root canal and seeing that your tooth has been fixed right away,” Peel said.

A new mental health screening program the DPHHS has already been implemented across many schools across Montana. After gaining permission from an adult, the program assesses students with several different evidence-based screening tools, for anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance abuse.

“So far this school year, we’ve screened I believe 30,000 kids in Montana, and around 9% are registering as high risk for suicide, and of those 9% [of students], 100% have received care the same day they were screened,” Peel said.

As part of the series of events in recognition of Mental Health Month, the National Alliance for Mental Illness Family and Friends Training takes place at the Gateway Community Center on June 3 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Similar to their family support groups, the training will inform people who have loved ones with a mental health condition on how to best support them.

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing

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