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Billings program aims to keep children with mental health issues out of the ER

Billings program aims to keep children with mental health issues out of the ER

When it comes to children's mental and behavioral health, early intervention is key, said Amie Havner, who is the first-ever coordinator for the Yellowstone Youth Crisis Network.

The Billings-area network has brought more than a dozen public and private organizations together to improve immediate response to youth crises and alleviate the need for placing youth in hospital treatment centers or detention.

Havner, who worked with Youth Dynamics for 9 years, stepped into the new position with the Yellowstone Youth Crisis Network late last year. As coordinator, she connects families dealing with challenging children’s behavioral and mental health issues to resources that can help.

“Early intervention will help down the road,” Havner said.

Ideally, that leads to fewer trips to emergency rooms for desperate families, and fewer and shorter stays in residential-treatment settings for kids.

“That means keeping kids in the community at home,” said Jani McCall, who helped launch the crisis network and has worked in mental health and youth services in the Billings area for 37 years.

Addressing issues early also cuts down on overall health care costs, McCall said. The average child younger than 18 who has spent time in residential treatment will cycle through six to eight different placements, from hospitals to therapy-focused foster homes.

A statewide emphasis on diversion programs for kids kicked off about 2 years ago with grants for a handful of Montana cities, including Billings, and ramped up with the Montana legislature signed off on $1.2 million to continue the programs.

Leaders hope to integrate the program's services into a more permanent structure.

“That’s why we have to do an excellent job of data gathering and reporting,” McCall said. “It’s like, "OK, what are we bringing here? What are the results?' We've got to produce here.”

Many of Havner’s duties involve working directly with families as a case manager. She’s based in an office at the Lincoln Center in space donated by School District 2, but frequently visits schools or homes. School can be an ideal place to identify kids who are struggling, but schools — especially at the elementary level — don’t always have resources to help.

“One of the gaps that we are seeing, especially for kiddos under 6, there’s not as many services,” Havner said.

Part of what data collection will do is to help identify those gaps: What kind of services are people using? How are they finding them? Are they keeping up with later appointments?

Ultimately, that information helps address a greater goal: making sure children experiencing a mental health crisis are using every resource available to them before heading to the emergency room.

One of the biggest challenges for experts is convincing people that they need help.

“It’s very difficult for families to be at that point,” Havner said. “To admit that you can’t handle a situation with your child is not easy.”

Significant stigma still surrounds mental health treatment, especially in rural areas.

“I think things have improved as far as awareness, but I think we still have a long way to go,” Havner said.

The group is developing a website that is designed to be easy to navigate and to allow users to access resources with plain descriptions.

“It’s not clinical speak,” Havner said.

In addition to the website, a 24/7 hotline is available and staffed by Havner or a trained representative from the Youth Service Center. The number is 200-0559.

The community partners for the crisis network now include 22 groups.

“The community needs to take ownership,” McCall said.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.

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