Montana’s Failure in Addressing Mental Illness

Something bad is going on in the Mining City. In the last month, three high school students have taken their own life. Needless to say the community is reeling and I have spent the past few days trying to wrap my head around what is happening in my beloved hometown. When a young person takes their own life, the entire community feels that impact, whether they knew the child or not.

For those of you without Butte connections, it is important to note that suicide is a very serious issue in Montana and what is happening in Butte could very well be a story in any community in our state, mental illness does not discriminate and it does not recognize borders.

Like millions of others across the nation, I am no stranger to mental illness. I have struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life, and only as an adult am I learning how to properly take care of myself and manage my issues. It is easier to admit these things now, and while I knew about them as a student at Butte High, I had no idea that others felt the same way. In fact, one of my classmates, someone I have known for most of my life (considering how old we both are now) recently came forward to publicly share his story of depression as a means to shed light on the situation and offer some healing to Butte. Please take a moment to read his story and his follow up, both are powerful examples of the courage it takes to talk openly about issues so stigmatized in our day to day lives.

Kevin and I are not alone. Not by a long shot. According to NAMI-Montana, 1 in 5 Montana families are impacted by mental illness. 1 in 5! Sadly Montana also has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. We have to do better than this.

We could spend plenty of time debating why the issues in Montana are so high; bullying, social pressure, finances, family, relationships, isolation, drugs, etc. But what is happening is bigger than those factors. Montana is failing in addressing mental illness. We ignore the true costs of a broken mental health care system, gut programs and slash budgets that could help communities. And as I write this, conservative politicians remain hellbent on repealing the Affordable Care Act “Obamacare” despite the fact that as of January 1, 2014 millions of Americans will have more accessible care through the elimination of lifetime limits and banning the use of “pre-existing conditions” as a reason to deny insurance.

In Montana, 70,000 working Montanans are still without health insurance, due to the legislature’s failure to expand Medicaid. That means thousands of Montanans and their children may be forced to ignore symptoms rather than seek out help they need, all because they can’t afford to seek out care. Meanwhile dozens of efforts to improve mental health services, whether through studies or increased funding, all failed to pass during the 2013 legislative session, despite demonstration of need and bi-partisan support.

No question that Montana has a “toughen up” attitude but at what point do we admit to ourselves that attitude is killing our children and devastating our communities. By taking the first step in admitting that we have significant mental health needs in our state, Montana could start doing more to protect our families and save lives. We need to do better.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Sheena Rice

A professional rabble rouser, Sheena is a Butte girl now calling Billings home. She loves Montana, music, politics, cheap beer and dinosaurs. She hates the big banks and pants. All of her posts are done on her own time and of her own accord and are not associated with the organization that she works for.


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  • Montana has had a mental health issue for as long as I can remember. One of the first statewide topics I was faced with as a High School Debater was the Montana Mental Health system. It was seriously broken then and it is seriously broken now.

    I, too, have a condition that is often referred to (incorrectly) as a mental health issue – severe ADHD. Back when I was in high school it was still treated as a mental health issue – with all the negative connotations associated with having a mental health issue. While we know today that ADHD is a genetic physical disorder, many people still treat it as a mental health issue – in fact, I was forced to get my prescription from the local mental health center when I first moved to Dillon because my medical doctor felt that I should be seen by mental health professionals before I could receive medication for my physical disorder.

    I would go so far as to say that Suicide in Montana has reached epidemic proportions. In Dillon we were recently shocked by a high profile suicide of a man that has served this community for decades. While the circumstance are different, it still effects the entire community.

    I could not agree more that something needs to be done to address the issue. I do, however, take exception with the idea that this is a partisan issue. EVERYONE should be concerned about this issue regardless of what side of the political spectrum you come from. Not do I believe for a second that Republicans are hit any less hard by the suicide of a child in their community.

    I do agree wholeheartedly about your assessment of this state’s failure when it comes to the ACA – specifically the failure to expand Medicaid/Medicare. Granted, I have personal reasons for that viewpoint – as I have said before elsewhere, my daughter is one of the people caught in that donut between Medicare eligibility and 100% of poverty level.

    As Rob pointed out in another comment on another thread, attacking those that do not share your political viewpoint is not the way to go about forming a consensus to address the problem. We – as in every concerned citizen of Montana, regardless of what our political bent is – need to work together to put pressure on the legislators of this state to find a solution to the problem. When we work together, we are far more likely to reach a solution than when we are taking pot shots at each other. I would be more than happy to work with anyone to get our politicians to rethink their stance on medical aid to our working poor. I have even gone so far as to write “guest posts” at other blogs on this subject.

    • I agree 100% with you that this should not be a partisan issue. And that it really isn’t. If you want my honest opinion all political parties have failed when mental health is concerned. My frustration is the fervor that a few with hard-edge political beliefs have for repealing something that finally offers a little bit of relief in terms of health care without so much as a “how do you do..” or an alternative.

      But yes. This should not ever, ever, be a partisan issue. We need everybody to get on the same page. Our children and communities deserve it.

    • Montanans don’t have the money to cough up for this.

      Back in the day, that’s what a trusted teacher, clergyman, or school counselor was for.

      Listen to you say “do something”. Well, LIKE WHAT?

      You don’t have an answer, do you? But you’ll spend millions of MY hard-earned tax dollars to find out, won’t you?

      And guess what, it won’t work.

      Just hold your neighbor closer, OK?

  • Hear, hear! I appreciate your inclusion of the unique Montana pressures (chief among them poverty, bullying, and stoicism) as that is what complicates something like anxiety. Take ordinary worry, for example, then add a bully at work, a wooden spouse, and an $800 car with a bad transmission. Now you stare at the ceiling all night and walk around with all your senses on the top setting. The reality is: if one among us has a problem, we all do. The Atlantic featured an in-depth report on anxiety this month. The bold, confident, and unafraid? Probably a psychopath. And we’re back to bullies.

  • Why is it MONTANA’S fault that these kids killed themselves?

    It’s YOUR FAULT for not loving on those kids enough. 50 years ago that didn’t happen. So what’s different? Your ‘hometown’ obviously isn’t a hometown, but a cold, distant place for these kids to grow up in! Where were YOU in these kids’ lives?

    If MONTANA (read, the government and OUR TAX DOLLARS) gets involved, less people will be able to afford a cozy HOUSE, what with property taxes going through the roof and sales sur charges; a home with a garden is where kids grow up best. If homes are relatively cheap, then most people can buy one.

    Would it be too much for neighbors to check in on neighbors? Have people visit all homes once a week ON A VOLUNTEER basis?

    Or do you have to have a new job for your unemployed son in the Montana government that pays $75,000.00 to play ‘expert’ to troubled kids?

    Montana is hurting economically, we can’t afford the taxes to pay for this. Take responsibility and do it YOURSELF. Or pay the damn taxes yourself.

    More taxes, more foreclosures, more suicides!

    No one can read a troubled mind. How many millions of wasted, crippling dollars do we have to spend to assuage YOUR GUILT?

    100 years ago in this state, come spring, people were found frozen in the snow. Those weren’t all accidents, you know. That was their way out.

    People didn’t cry crocodile tears over it. They cried and got on with their lives.

    Hug just a little bit closer, love just a little bit more.

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