Whether on a 911 call or in person, local law enforcement officers and emergency dispatchers often stand as the first line of intervention in a mental-health crisis incident — including threats of self-harm or suicide. And while these folks are well-trained to handle such calls, they recently let the Flathead County commissioners know that they would welcome the addition of mental-health specialists to provide professional assistance and guidance.
Commissioners have a chance to help make that request a reality at their meeting on Monday when they will decide whether to apply for a grant that would fund new personnel for the Western Montana Mental Health Center. The two-year grant from the state would provide $144,600 each year for the “Co-Responder Project,” which would enhance the center’s crisis-intervention services in Flathead County. A community-based therapist would be embedded with local law enforcement, while a community support specialist would provide assistance from the center.
The project has the backing of Kalispell Police Chief Doug Overman; Leslie Nyman, director of behavioral health at Kalispell Regional Healthcare; and Elizabeth Brooks, director of the Flathead Emergency Communication Center.
Commissioner Randy Brodehl, who represents Flathead County on the Western Montana Regional Mental Health board, is also in support of the project. While concerns have been raised about taxpayer liability should grant money dry up, Brodehl is correct to point out that the county wouldn’t be on the hook since the mental-health professionals would be employed by the center, not the county.
Brodehl also rightly notes that the program could actually save taxpayers money by reducing the need for critical mental-health services in the long run.
Montana consistently ranks as one of the most suicide-prone states in the nation. According to a 2018 report by the Montana Department of Health, Montana has ranked in the top five for suicide rates in the nation for the past 30 years. The youth suicide rate in Montana is almost triple the national rate, and over the past 10 years suicide is the No. 2 cause of death for children ages 10-14, adolescents ages 15-24 and adults ages 25-44.
These statistics are nothing short of jarring. If signing off on a $288,000 grant to fund the Co-Responder Project helps change the trajectory, even slightly, the commissioners should do it without hesitation. The financial liability is nominal, but the payoff could be an untold number of lives saved.