Guest Column

Expand Mental Health and Addiction Support Services

It is difficult, if not impossible to access a mental health provider on a drop-in basis

By Kyle Waterman

This past winter I helped some families move out from the old Outlaw Inn property. It was clear that there are very real barriers preventing our neighbors from finding decent housing. The hardest is that the word “local” is used in a derogatory manner towards families that lived and paid rent at the Outlaw. There are very few places that a local, on a “local” income can affordably rent. If these families have any behavioral health issues, then doors can quickly close on them.

Behavioral health issues include addiction, which can create even more behavioral health issues or just be a by-product of self-medication because no other help is available. These unchecked behavioral health issues can lead to felonies and legal encounters. As one neighbor at the Outlaw said, “I had a really bad divorce. I made my decisions. I know it, but now I have a felony. Now most management companies in Kalispell won’t rent to me because of my record.”

I also worked with a 76-year-old former service man, a chain smoker who had chronic back pain. He said to me, “I didn’t expect to live this long.” The only space available, with his conditions and needs, was outside of Bigfork. But he still would have needed to regularly see his doctor at the health clinic in Kalispell. His family eventually moved him to Washington so that he could be close to another family member.

Locals are really being pushed out by growth. We need expanded support services in the Flathead. Our community health surveys continue to indicate that we have significant mental health and substance abuse problems. We all know it and it is impossible to miss or dismiss. Talking about the problem is part of the way that we start to address this problem. This problem is also part of our housing problem. We have neighbors who are failing to keep housing, or the jobs they need to keep a roof over their head, because they need mental health services. Not full-time services, but access to mental health services, intervention services, and restorative justice options.

Our behavioral health system is critically under-resourced and underfunded in Montana. It is difficult, if not impossible to access a mental health provider on a drop-in basis. We provide acute mental health care services but with little available residential treatment facilities locally or in Montana. Our neighbors are turning to self-medication, and we lack access to behavioral health services in the community. Many of our group homes and public health options are unstaffed or closed. We need to ask where alcohol and tobacco funding that is meant to fund these community services is going. And we need to make sure that the tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales is returning to the community and going directly to addressing this growing behavioral health crisis rather than just into the general fund. These funds should also go to local law enforcement to train the staff they need to address mental health challenges in the community.

If we do not start addressing these real problems that are preventing locals from staying in housing, then we will continue to need a bigger and bigger jail, which is a shameful solution to our housing problem. 

Kyle Waterman is the Democrat candidate for Senate District 4

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