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Montana needs better access to mental health care, substance abuse treatment, experts say

Missoulian - 5/15/2019

Montana needs more health care providers and, where that's not possible, more access to doctors through telemedicine, advocates and officials told the state's congressman Friday in Billings.

Greg Gianforte, Montana's lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, met with regional experts on Friday to discuss the best ways to address mental health, suicide and substance abuse.

Gianforte was recently appointed to a health care subcommittee in the House and said he's eager to learn what systems and programs for combating suicide and addiction work at a local and state level, and what could be improved.

"I appreciate you being engaged," he told the group. "This is the beginning."

Claire Oakley, the division director of health promotion at RiverStone Health, spoke specifically about school-based programs designed to help students and teachers identify suicidal tendencies and educate them on how to respond.

The program has been effective in giving both students and teachers the tools they need to better address suicide, Oakley said. But she acknowledged it's hard to measure the program's effectiveness because there's no way of knowing for sure how many attempt suicide and survive.

Eric Arzubi, the department chair of psychiatric services at Billings Clinic, agreed.

"It's difficult to measure what's not happening," he said.

So to gauge how successful these suicide prevention programs are, public health and other care providers look at who has accessed the care they offer and how many have taken advantage of the program.

One of the biggest issues facing the state is the shortage of mental health care providers across Montana. In many cases, school counselors or primary care providers have no one to refer to once they've identified someone who needs mental health care.

To reach the more rural corners of the state, the experts in the room talked about the importance and efficacy of telemedicine — health care provided through mobile connections between major hospitals in the state's population centers and small, rural clinics.

Stephanie Iron Shooter, a grant manager in the state office of public instruction, talked about how devastating the lack of access to mental health care can be on the state's rural and vulnerable population, particularly on reservations.

She agreed with the other experts in the room in calling for more providers and expanding telemedicine to help address the issues.

Arzubi agreed and said the best, immediate way to address the unique mental health needs in a state as geographically large and rural as Montana is through telemedicine connections.

"Technology is going to be critical," he said.

It was language Gianforte understood. The congressman founded the tech firm RightNow Technologies in 1997, which sold to Oracle in 2011 for $1.5 billion.

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