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The Center for Mental Health will bring counseling services to an office in Boulder Catholic Church’s parish hall starting June 25. Licensed Clinical and Professional Counselor Jessica Gruber from the CMH in Helena will offer in-person counseling appointments every Friday from 1–5 p.m.

According to CMH Director of Substance Recovery Julie Prigmore, a licensed counselor who sits on the Jefferson County Mental Health Local Advisory Council, the CMH rented the space using money from a $40,000 grant the council received in May 2020 to fund improvements in access to mental health in Boulder and Whitehall. The council was able to apply for the federally funded County and Tribal Government Matching Grant when the coronavirus pandemic presented the appropriate crisis circumstances for mental health, Prigmore said. 

“We’ve been working on renting [an office in Boulder] since we got that grant,” Jefferson County Prevention Specialist and DUI Task Force Coordinator Barb Reiter said, adding that the CMH found the space just in time—the terms of the grant required the money to be spent or allocated by June 30.

County Commissioner Bob Mullen, who also sits on the council, explained that the council oversees the grant, releasing money to the CMH periodically to fund mental health resources for Jefferson County. So far, the grant has also funded personal protective equipment for physicians and mental health practitioners, rent for the CMH counseling office in Whitehall, telehealth initiatives and crisis services, Mullen and Prigmore said. 

Prigmore said that the CMH already provides telehealth services to several Boulder residents who will now have the option to meet with Gruber in person. Other than those patients, Prigmore said, they currently don’t know how many community members will be interested in in-person appointments. She said the CMH and council will gauge community interest over the next year and would adjust office hours accordingly.

“We’re very open to seeing what happens,” Prigmore said. “We’re very lucky to have the funding to keep this office.”

Gruber said she is excited to start working in Boulder. She moved to Clancy from Idaho in 2014 to work at the CMH in Helena, and currently works with people of all ages from “3 years old to end-of-life,” she said. She has previously done family counseling, couples counseling, anger-management work and art therapy, and is trained in prolonged-exposure therapy and currently runs a survivors-of-suicide group in Helena.

Gruber worked in a similar office in Townsend from 2014–18, and said she “thoroughly enjoys” working in rural communities

“As soon as I saw the opportunity to work in Boulder, I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll definitely work there,’” she said. 

In addition to weekly in-person counseling, the Helena CMH will continue to offer counseling as well as psychiatry services via telehealth to Boulder residents, Prigmore said. She added that if one of Gruber’s in-person patients needed psychiatry services, Gruber would be able to schedule the patient with an on-call psychiatrist remotely during an in-person appointment.

Prigmore said that for a long time, the CMH struggled to find an office space for counseling services in Boulder. She said the Catholic church’s office was a “really good space” because it is located out of the main downtown area and will provide a greater sense of privacy.

Reiter, the prevention specialist, said she was also glad the space was opened in the Catholic church due to the “stigma” around mental health. 

“This way, we found a space where they wouldn’t stand out and people won’t think, ‘They’re going in for mental health,’” she said. “We have a lot of work to do with [stigma], not just in Jefferson County, but in the state of Montana.”

Center for Mental Health CEO Sydney Blair said that access to mental health care is a “huge issue” across the state of Montana, to the extent that 90 percent of those who need treatment do not receive it. Stigma and accessibility are some of the greatest obstacles, she said.

According to a report published by Montana Suicide Prevention Coordinator Karl Rosston, Montana has consistently ranked in the top-five states with the highest suicide rates for the past 30 years. Additionally, the report stated, among Montana youths between the ages of 11 and 17, the suicide rate from 2009–18 was 11 out of 100,000, which is more than double the national average for that age group, and suicide was the leading cause of “preventable death” and the second most common cause of death for children in Montana ages 10 to 14. Jefferson County’s suicide rate between 2009 and 2018, according to the report, was 29.9 per 100,000—higher than the national average of 23.9 per 100,000.

The new office is opening at a critical time for mental health in Jefferson County and across the nation. During the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an increase in mental health disorders and substance use. According to the CDC, as of late June 2020, 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with their mental health or substance use, of which 11 percent had seriously considered suicide, 31 percent had symtoms of anxiety or depression, and 13 percent started or increased substance use. 

Likewise, Jefferson County’s 2020 Community Health Improvement Plan listed mental health as its first priority. The plan included three goals for the following three years: decreasing the percentage of youths who report symptoms of depression on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 41.5 percent to 36 percent; decreasing the percentage of residents who perceive access to mental health care as a major problem from 53 percent to 48 percent; and decreasing the number of drug hospitalizations from 210.7 per 100,000 to less than 200 per 100,000. The CHIP plan mentioned increasing access to mental health care as an important part of these objectives.

“We’ve seen more of a need [for mental health care] coming off of COVID,” Prigmore said, adding that the CMH has seen higher rates of suicide and substance use since the pandemic started. 

Isolation is different in rural areas, she said, where many people rely heavily on their close connections with others. In addition to increased isolation, she said, many people have experienced increased stress during the pandemic due to factors including sick relatives, financial instability, job loss and difficulty with online school in remote areas.

“You’re also dealing with people who may be ranchers or farmers, and have that tough mindset,” Prigmore said. “You know, get up, dust off your boots and just manage it.’” 

She said many do not realize things like feeling “worried” or having “lack of motivation” are treatable and can be helped by mental health services.

For many of these reasons, Reiter said she is “thrilled” that the CMH has secured an office space in Boulder. Prigmore said that residents can make appointments at the Boulder office by calling the CMH in Helena at (406) 443-7151.

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