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211 grant

Billings Mayor Bill Cole addresses a press conference at United Way announcing a Veterans Administration grant to fund a 211 non-emergency call center.

Yellowstone County will soon have access to a phone line that aims to direct callers toward resources that can help with physical health and social, emotional and economic troubles — hopefully before those situations turn into emergencies.

Billings and United Way of Yellowstone County officials announced a new grant Friday that will help staff a Montana 211 call center for the county. The existing hotline serves all of Montana except the southeastern region.

The grant will be in part directed toward catering to veterans, and officials at a press conference days before Veteran’s Day framed it as a step toward addressing Montana’s suicide crisis.

Montana consistently earns among the nation’s highest suicide rates, both for veterans and the general population. In Montana, the suicide rate among veterans is triple that of the suicide rate among the general population in the U.S.

“Suicide is a public health crisis,” Mayor Bill Cole said at the Friday press conference. “How do we get help to people earlier?”

The $221,000 grant from the Veteran’s Administration will be used to contract with a group that already runs a 211 call center in Great Falls and operates a separate suicide hotline. The phone number will likely be operational by about the end of November, United Way director of impact Kristin Lundgren said. 

The 211 number aims to connect callers with accessible resources to them — for example, transportation to medical appointments or assistance with housing costs. Its associated website, www.Montana211.org, also has a list of resources and questions that can be submitted. 

Part of the money will be used to help staff understand military culture and resources. The website has a tab for "Service Members and Veterans," and almost 500 people in that group searched the website in 2018 so far, including 341 in Yellowstone County. Overall, the site has received about 20,000 searches in 2018 — more than triple compared to 2016. The phone line averages about 8,400 calls per year. 

The most popular searches among veterans were for housing and financial assistance, but users also looked at other areas like mental health, education and employment, veterans affairs/resources, medical services and suicide prevention. 

The phone number will likely be operational by about the end of November, United Way director of impact Kristin Lundgren said. 

Next steps

The call center is a major step forward, said Lundgren, but it also can connect people only to resources that exist — Montana lags in that category. 

For example, the Montana Healthcare Foundation examined behavioral health resources. 

The group cited a national survey showing that Montana ranked 44th among states when looking at the "prevalence of behavioral health problems and corresponding access, or lack thereof, to services for treatment."

It also says that in 2016, only 25 percent of Montana’s mental health professional needs were filled — bottom five compared to other states.

Still, compiling existing resources in a one-stop shop is important, Lundgren said. 

"Part of being a trauma-informed community is that people should have easy access to help when they need it," she said. 

The 211 line was established in 2005, when the legislature earmaked the 211 number and four call centers were created in Great Falls, Bozeman, Missoula and Kalispell. Technically, the Bozeman center covered much of southern Montana, including to the east. But that overstretched the group to keep track of resources in the area. 

United Way of Yellowstone County didn't feel like it had the funding to swing the creation of a call center in 2005, but conversations about the model progressed as collaborations between several health agencies designated the 211 line and its collection of resources as a priority. 

The call line will also help compile information about existing needs, Lundgren said. It can help gather hard data on whether people are able to get the help they need, and where — and where there are gaps that need addressing. That information is crucial when applying for grants, she said. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.