Detoured from Warm Springs 

The Montana Legislature is slowly shaping a new paradigm for dealing with the state's mentally ill in local settings, before they reach the state hospital at Warm Springs. Until now, safety nets capable of catching mentally ill Montanans before they get in trouble have been few and far between, says Disability Rights Montana Staff Attorney, Anita Roessmann.

"The state hospital has always been the safety net for everybody," she says, "The only mental health service you get is the state institution."

But that's changing as policy makers recognize that sending patients away from families and communities into state prisons and hospitals doesn't make sense, Roessmann says. "You wouldn't go to Warm Springs to get a fire engine."

Roessman lobbied the state legislature last session for funds to provide early intervention at the local level rather than costly after-crisis incarceration and hospitalization. Mentally ill people comprise as much as half of the state prison population (depending on the study cited).

Her lobbying worked. The legislature passed a trio of laws providing funds to treat people in their communities before illness escalates.

One piece of legislation, House Bill 130, allocates $2.1 million statewide to address mental health challenges at home, enabling the Missoula County Commissioners last week to sign off on a joint agreement with the state that will, among other things, fund four social worker positions. The social workers will connect patients with Saint Patrick's Hospital and Health Sciences Center, Partnership Health Center, the Missoula County Public Defender Office and the Western Montana Mental Health Center to better ensure clients' access to housing and treatment, improving the odds in the patient's favor, says Kim Brown Campbell from the Missoula County Office of Planning and Grants.

Sometimes people must wait as long as two weeks to meet with a social worker after discharge from in-patient mental health treatment, Brown says. Once the state funding comes through, the wait will dwindle to less than a week.

"I'm really thrilled," Roessmann says. "This is the first step in the right direction."

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