Missoula professionals gather to discuss mental health at Missoula forum

Panel members discussed mental health on Monday at City Club Missoula.

As dozens of Missoulians spent their Monday afternoon engaging in a conversation about the state of mental health in the city, the irony was not lost. Susan Hay Patrick, chair of the City Club of Missoula, pointed to the uncomfortable reality of the situation.

“We’re not all in the same room together, and that can be especially frustrating when we’re discussing mental health issues because feeling connected is so critical to everyone’s mental health,” she said.

While formal conversations about mental health generally exist on the institutional level, moderator Rosie Seitz Ayers grounded the discussion in the individual, inquiring how the panelists have practiced self-care, the habit of taking care of oneself physically, mentally or spiritually over the past few months.

Levi Anderson, CEO of Western Montana Mental Health, takes solace in the outdoors. Sarah Potts, director of behavioral health at Partnership Health Center, has refined her work-life balance and spent time with her puppy. Rob Watson, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools, tries to start every day with a positive attitude.

Anderson said 16 sites in 17 counties have resources ranging from group therapy to crisis facilities. They’re all grounded in a commitment to providing mental health and substance abuse services the day they are sought.

Much of their counseling and healthcare services have transitioned to telehealth, but they maintain engagement with their clients and provide care. This includes group home services, which placed increased focus on creative activities, structure and constant engagement.

Unlike hospitals, these integrated mental health centers do not have immediate access to personal protective equipment.

“We’ve been putting a tremendous amount of work into our disaster preparedness plans,” he said. “We are seeing a huge increase in the acuity of the cases we’re treating in crisis as well as the cases of substance abuse.”

Anderson anticipates that the trend will persist until the ability to socially connect — in person, less than six feet apart and without a mask — is curtailed.

Potts experienced similar challenges at Partnership Health Center. Partnership, a federally qualified health center, was created in an effort toward healthcare equality in 1989. It provides diverse and affordable care across the life spectrum, including mental health services for children and adults.

Despite its pitfalls, Potts asserted that this “wouldn’t have been possible before.” While telehealth was available at a limited capacity before COVID-19 struck, the first stimulus bill and the CARES Act have expanded services available under telehealth and relaxed limitations to obtain them.

Still, regulatory issues vary by state, privacy concerns are exacerbated, and beneficiaries in rural areas are limited by insufficient broadband infrastructure. The looming question is whether or not the government will allow these telehealth flexibilities post-pandemic.

At the end of the day, “We are passionate about providing health that feels good for patients and feels good on the staff’s side, too,” Potts said.

Tele-school has proved more costly to participants’ mental health. While superintendent Rob Watson has been diligent in promoting equal access to the varied services schools provide — delivering 92,000 lunches and breakfasts for 57 days, letting 1,500 students borrow computers and providing hot spots to 125 families — students will fall months behind in their education.

“We’re predicting 3 months-worth of loss for readings and 5 months-worth of loss for math,” Watson said. “Fifty-seven percent of the students who receive mental health services receive them at the school in some form.”

While some of these services were continued through telehealth, most no longer had access. The county is navigating diverse methods of risk mitigation — including less class rotation, limited adult visits and a remote learning alternative for all students.

But Watson is committed to prioritizing students’ well-being with regular check-ins and a renewed emphasis on student-teacher relationships.

“We are living through a traumatic event, and we know that trauma has impacts on how students learn,” he said. “We don’t want families to think that they don’t have any options in the fall.”

Anderson, Potts and Watson are all dedicated to the continued fulfillment of their organizations’ mission, and whether that is same-day care or a high caliber education, they all underscore the recognition of the whole person when discussing the state of mental health in our community.

“Increase compassion towards everyone, including yourself,” Anderson said. In regards to parents worried about their children’s mental health, Potts recommended considering “How we can have some structure embedded in routine throughout the day.”

Yet at the same time, she reminded parents that “The fact that you’re worried, the fact that you’re concerned and aware, is huge.”

Contact reporter Audrey Pettit at agp2147@barnard.edu .