Western Montana Mental Health closes down

by Jada Smook

The Western Montana Mental Health Center provides a range of services and assists with housing options for people of all ages with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems. The organization provides services to over 15,000 people per year according to their website.

As of Tuesday, January 2, 2018 Western Montana Mental Health Center will be closing for good.

Mary Windecker of Western Montana Mental Health in Missoula told The Montanian on Dec. 28 that only two office are closing. One in Missoula and the Libby office. Until now, the organization was serving eleven cities throughout Montana.

Employees were aware of potential reimbursement cuts for case management but were not expecting the news, issued on Dec. 18, that the Libby center would be closing.

Employees were later asked not to speak to the media, but the Montanian interviewed one employee from the Libby office on Dec. 26, before that request was received. The employee subsequently requested to remain anonymous and will be referred to as “the employee” in this article.

The employee said that the closure decision was coming from people who don’t live in this area and don’t have knowledge of what the center does. “These people think that the health center offers unnecessary services,” the employee said.

The employee went on to say that roughly 100 clients in our community were being served. Many of the clients relied heavily on the center to help get them through rough times in their lives.

Many people are worried about the center closing down and what this means for our community, the employee said.

For the clients of Libby’s Western Montana Mental Health Center, “they are having their world turned upside down, and they have no control over it. The clients are having to start all over, including retelling their stories and having to find new services,” the employee said.

There are other services in town to help with mental health clients, but many will be overrun now and the services will likely not be as comprehensive, at least not at first.

In addition there was very little notice given to employees and clients which isn’t good for anyone, the employee said.

“It can take months, or even years to gain clients’ trust so that we can work to help them. Some clients will not seek services and fall through the cracks again,” said the employee.

The Montanian asked  Brandon Huff of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office how he felt the closure of Western Montana Mental Health’s Libby office would impact the community.

“I feel that our community is in crisis mode because we got this news on very short notice and this means there will be a lot of changes for everyone,” Huff said.

He said he felt the crime rate would not go up much, but that drug use rates probably would.         “Mental health is a challenging case to deal with and some who suffer from mental illnesses only commit minor crimes which will now be harder to deal with,” he said.

Law enforcement will now have a more difficult process finding others to help with evaluations of these people, Huff said.

The Sheriff’s office is  trying to prepare by getting other providers together like the Community Health Center and counselors in private practice who may be able to help take over some of the roles that the Mental Health Center had in our community.

“A meeting will be held between all these agencies to try and talk over the problem and see how it can be solved better,” said Huff.  The meeting was held on Dec. 27. The Montanian was unsuccessful contacting Huff for additional comments following the meeting due to early deadlines.

Mavis Vaillancourt, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Libby also agreed that there will be an unmet need for services for Western Montana Mental Health’s former clients.

“I think one of the biggest concerns I have is, are we going to lose any of the client’s lives in the process of everyone trying to find placement and treatment for them?” Vaillancourt said in an interview with The Montanian on Dec. 26.

She said “all counselors in town are going to have to absorb the clientele from the mental health center, in fact I have already gotten calls from clients needing help.”

Like Huff, Vaillancourt said that she’s concerned about crisis prevention and who will do emergency evaluations.

“If people in crisis have to be sent to Kalispell, she said this will negatively impact everyone involved in the situation.”

The community will be impacted by loss of jobs as well.

Nine or ten of us are losing our jobs, and many of the employees have been working here for years. In this area, you can’t just go get another job, employment is not always easy to find, said the Western Montana Mental Health employee.

It’s also hard for employees and clients who have established a trusting relationship to walk away with so little warning.

The employee said, “In the human services field, you can’t just walk away from clients, the relationship is far too important.”        The employee continued, “It is hard to explain to  upset clients why this is happening when we don’t really fully know that answer ourselves. For some of the children that are served, the employees here were the only stable and consistent part of their lives.”

The closure of Western Montana Mental Health Center’s office in Libby has followed the loss of jobs from the SK Fingerjoint fire on Nov. 6.

In addition to the effect on mental health services and jobs, this closure is likely to impact families of mental health clients,  local businesses, the schools, juvenile probation, the Department of Family Services, the Sheriff’s office and energy assistance.

The mental health center’s services were intertwined with all of these other agencies, and that will be hard to replace, said Vaillancourt.