St. Patrick Hospital announced last week it had secured $150,000 in a recent congressional earmark to help renovate and expand a facility for emergency mental health patients, one part of a $15 million emergency room expansion. But while many in Missoula’s social services applaud the upgrade, they say it’s only a small step toward tackling a larger local issue.
“If [our patients] have a significant crisis, there’s nowhere for us to turn,” says Traci Shinabarger, program director for A.W.A.R.E. Inc. Homes of Missoula, of the area’s shortfall in mental health care facilities. Her organization specifically deals with therapeutic residential treatment for 10–18 year olds diagnosed with a mental illness. “If they need to be hospitalized [for a mental health crisis], the nearest hospital is Shodair in Helena.”
Shinabarger points to an increasing need for not one particular mental health care service, but a stronger network of community-based resources—from diagnosis to treatment to follow-up. But so far, St. Pat’s is the only major local health care provider to even begin addressing the problem.
“So many people view the emergency department at St. Pat’s as the center of emergency mental health services,” says Maureen O’Malley, suicide prevention coordinator for the Missoula County Health Department. “By default, it’s true.”
According to Joel Lankford, executive director of the St. Patrick Hospital and Health Foundation, the emergency department saw 681 mental health related cases last year, and had only a single adequate room to treat them. Lankford says the new, two-room mental health facility will better address patient and staff safety while allowing better interaction with law enforcement officials who frequently accompany such patients to the hospital. It’s scheduled to open in late 2009.
Mental health experts believe that’s still too little to address a growing problem. O’Malley says with Montana recently earning the nation’s top rating for per-capita suicide deaths last year, the need for more diverse services couldn’t be more urgent.
“We have to see it as more than emergency rooms and hospitals,” she says.