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Partnership Aims to Address Mental Health Provider Shortage in Rural MT

August 11, 2021

by web editor

For more than 30 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics have ranked Montana in the top five states for the highest suicide rates for all age groups. Hardly a distinction one wants for their state. Additionally, a recent Montana Healthcare Foundation report has identified significant behavioral health concerns for Montanans. It found that one in five Montana adults report having a depressive disorder, 20.8% report binge drinking - compared to 16.8% nationally - and 7.7% are classified as "heavy drinkers," compared to 6.2% nationally. Montana youth also report depression, alcohol use, binge drinking, and illicit drug use. Montana also has the second highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S., according to a National Vital Statistics Report. 

Couple all of that information with the realities of our large state and its widespread citizens, and we can recognize the incredible challenges of getting behavioral health care services where they're needed. Enter a new collaboration between MSU Billings, Montana State University's College of Nursing, the Montana Office of Rural Health and Area Education Center, and Billings Clinic that aims to help address a shortage of mental health providers in eastern Montana. 

This partnership, known as Montana Behavioral Health Workforce Education Training - Eastern and North Central Montana (BHWET-East) will provide training opportunities and financial support for students working to become psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, mental health counselors, or psychiatrists. The funding comes via a four-year, $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration


To increase access to high-quality and culturally appropriate behavioral health services in 38 of Montana's counties in eastern and north-central Montana. 

That access, says Stacy Stellflug, the grant's principal investigator and project director (and assistant professor at the MSU College of Nursing's Billings campus), is desperately needed. She explains, 

Like many places in the country, counties in rural Montana struggle to respond effectively to individuals in acute behavioral health crisis. In a frontier region, like eastern Montana, where there is a low population and high geographic remoteness, an individual experiencing a behavioral health crisis may be hundreds of miles from a hospital, and the nearest hospital may not have licensed behavioral health staff available to properly assess the patient and determine how to respond.

Led by a team within MSU's College of Nursing and the Montana Office of Rural Health and Area Health Education Center, MT BHWET-East will focus on increasing access to mental health services in some of Montana's most rural and isolated communities. Additionally, it aims to...

  • expand and enhance community partnerships to increase the number of training sites that integrate mental health care. 
  • support providers' awareness of providing culturally appropriate care, awareness of population needs, and more. 

Kailyn Mock, director of Montana Office of Rural Health and Area Health Education Center MSU, explains that "Montana continues to face a behavioral health care workforce shortage, especially in our rural and frontier regions. Supporting behavioral health professional trainees through their academic careers, providing comprehensive integrated behavioral health education, and creating team-based training opportunities in our communities is a successful model for growing Montana’s health care workforce.”

Echoing that sentiment, Stellflug notes that the grant will enable real results, "It's a game changer to get this grant and be able to support the future providers who will care for individuals who are hurting and help those individuals learn to cope and process through trauma and grief. I’m eager to foster these partnerships and to support our ability to work together as professionals to meet those needs.”


  • In the first year of the grant, 16 mental health counseling 16 mental health counseling students and two psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner students will be supported.
  • In the second, third and fourth years of the grant, 11 counseling students, three nurse practitioner students and three psychiatric medical residents will be supported.
  • The psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner students will be enrolled in the Doctor of Nursing Practice program in MSU’s College of Nursing.
  • Mental health counseling students will be enrolled in a master’s program in rehabilitation and mental health counseling offered by MSU Billings.
  • Psychiatric medical residents will be part of the Montana Track at Billings Clinic offered through the University of Washington’s psychiatric medical residency training program.

Sarah Shannon, dean of the MSU College of Nursing, believes the grant will create the foundation for interprofessional education, which prepares health professional students for interprofessional collaborative practice, the gold standard.

Montanans need more access to high-quality mental health services. This federal funding will help to create the next generation of mental health care providers who have been educated as an interdisciplinary team to provide care as a high-functioning team. The MSU College of Nursing is enthusiastic about this first-ever partnership with our sister university, MSU Billings, and our clinical partner, Billings Clinic.

Stellflug concludes, “We’ve become acutely aware that we have to take care of our bodies and our minds and hearts. We’re excited about this grant and its potential to help us care for the hearts and minds of eastern Montanans.”

-Source: MSU Billings August 10, 2021 Media Release

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