A new collaboration between MSU Billings, Montana State University’s College of Nursing, the Montana Office of Rural Health and Area Education Center, and Billings Clinic aims to help address a shortage of mental health providers in eastern Montana.

 The partnership, known as Montana Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training – Eastern and North Central Montana, or BHWET-East, will provide training opportunities and financial support for students working to become psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, mental health counselors or psychiatrists. The work is supported by a four-year, $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

The partnership’s goal is to increase access to high-quality and culturally appropriate behavioral health services in 38 of Montana’s counties in eastern and north-central Montana. That access is desperately needed, according to Stacy Stellflug, the grant’s principal investigator and project director and an assistant professor at the MSU College of Nursing’s Billings campus location.

“Like many places in the country, counties in rural Montana struggle to respond effectively to individuals in acute behavioral health crisis,” Stellflug said. “In a frontier region, like eastern Montana, where there is a low population and high geographic remoteness, an individual experiencing a behavioral health crisis may be hundreds of miles from a hospital, and the nearest hospital may not have licensed behavioral health staff available to properly assess the patient and determine how to respond.” 

Montana is at the epicenter of the country’s mental health crisis, which makes the need for mental health care even greater. For more than 30 years, Montana has ranked in the top five states for the highest suicide rates for all age groups, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Stellflug also pointed to a recent Montana Healthcare Foundation report that identifies significant behavioral health concerns for Montana citizens. The report found that one in five Montana adults reports having a depressive disorder, 20.8% report binge drinking — compared to 16.8% nationally – and 7.7% are classified as “heavy drinkers,” which is compared to 6.2% nationally. Montana youth also report depression, alcohol use, binge drinking and illicit drug use. Montana also has the second highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S., according to a National Vital Statistics Report.

MT BHWET-East will be led by a team within MSU’s College of Nursing and the Montana Office of Rural Health and Area Health Education Center. It will focus on increasing access to mental health services in some of Montana’s most rural and isolated communities. In addition to supporting future mental health providers, the program aims to expand and enhance community partnerships to increase the number of training sites that integrate mental health care. It will also work to support providers’ awareness of culturally appropriate care, awareness of population needs and more. 

“Montana continues to face a behavioral health care workforce shortage, especially in our rural and frontier regions,” said Kailyn Mock, director of the Montana Office of Rural Health and Area Health Education Center at MSU. “Supporting behavioral health professional trainees through their academic careers, providing comprehensive integrated behavioral health education, and creating team-based training opportunities in our communities is a successful model for growing Montana’s health care workforce.”


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