Whitefish mental-health service expands to meet need

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Sara Boilen, founder of Sweetgrass Psychological Services, at her office in Whitefish. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

By way of a lot of hard work, Sweetgrass Psychological Services in Whitefish has managed to expand its operations with new staff and a new building, despite a county-wide decline of mental-health resources in the Flathead Valley.

“There is a huge need in this community and we need more resources, but if anything, it seems we are going in the opposite direction, right?” said New York native and Sweetgrass founder Sara Boilen. “It’s not hard to see there is a big need in the Flathead and Montana in general.”

A growing need for mental-health services in Flathead County and beyond has been met with the closing of facility after facility. In the last few years alone, state budget cuts have shuttered resources including two local longstanding group homes, Sinopah House and Aware.

But Sweetgrass, founded in 2013, just moved four doors down from its original facility in November into a modern, yet welcoming building a stone’s throw from Whitefish River, with more space and more opportunity for future expansion. And the four-person team has grown to six specialists ranging from therapists to psychologists.

Boilen emphasized how the diversity of her growing team and caring for that team is a large part of what propels Sweetgrass forward.

“Everyone who works here at Sweetgrass ultimately loves what they do, and it’s something you’re able to recognize right away,” Boilen said.

Building a strong team hasn’t come without its challenges. Boilen cited how difficult it can be to find and retain health-care professionals in Montana and other rural areas, especially in the realm of mental health care.

All too often, students studying mental health will spend years in urban areas for their education and internships. So when it comes time to find a job, many aim to stay where they studied.

However, in an effort to attract and retain mental-health care providers in Flathead County, Sweetgrass offers various training opportunities. Most recently, the facility accepted a new trainee who will fulfill her required licensing hours alongside other employees.

Boilen said she plans to continue to fill the training gap in the coming years in hopes those who partake in training may consider a career in the state. She’s sure others will come to love and appreciate Montana life once they experience it.

Boilen first fell in love with Montana after she decided she would spend a summer wherever her finger landed on a map. And with her eyes closed, she landed on Babb, where she spent a few months washing dishes. After leaving Babb for schooling, she spent the next four years trying to figure out how to get back to Montana.

“Big urban areas are inundated with mental-health professionals, but it’s really hard to get psychologists to move here [Montana]. It’s really hard for them to get good training,” Boilen said. “But if we can just get them here, I think many would consider staying.”

She attributes the expansion of Sweetgrass to other factors, including the agency’s wide array of psychological services, including its ability to provide assessments. For instance, if a child has attended therapy and there has been little overall improvement, an assessment from Sweetgrass can pinpoint the cause that may be an underlying diagnosis such as autism.

According to Boilen, assessments are rare in other facilities in Flathead Valley.

And although the expansion is fresh, Boilen and her team have no plans of slowing down as they launch into the new year.

She hopes to offer more resources for those in rural locations where facilities are scarce. The team has already turned its attention to Libby, where residents have been left with extremely limited resources following the closing of nearby facilities, including the Libby office of Western Montana Mental Health.

“In the last month alone two people have had to cancel their appointments because they didn’t have the gas money to get here,” Boilen said. “ So we started wondering, is it sustainable somehow to have a strong enough network here that we can then have these sort of satellite operations? That’s the vision I see.”

Boilen said she has already started experimenting with how the team can best bring the services of Sweetgrass elsewhere with regularly scheduled visits. Aside from Libby, she mentioned the possibility of incorporating mental-health resources in rural places such as Choteau and Browning.

Sweetgrass is also exploring the possibility of teaming up with rural communities to set up a sort of scholarship-based program that could fund a patient’s trips to and from the Whitefish facility.

As with other facilities, Sweetgrass is no stranger to the ongoing struggle of funding, but has managed to grow with wise budgeting and community support. As for the future funding of Sweetgrass, Boilen hopes to one day start a nonprofit arm of her agency.

“I think it could allow us to really capitalize on the resources that do exist in the valley. We are fortunate to have people here who have means who are happy to donate to nonprofits,” Boilen said. “The thing about mental health is that it doesn’t just affect poor people or wealthy people. So maybe there will be some folks who come to us who have the resources and can even subsidize the care of somebody who can’t afford it.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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