Amie Gatterdam Gallatin City-County Health Department

Amie Gatterdam is helping lead the Gallatin City-County Health Department in integrating more behavioral health support into its home visitation and early childhood programs.

A growing number of kids in Gallatin County report they feel sad for weeks and have thoughts of suicide. A new effort to thread behavioral health care into programs to change that course will soon run out of money.

Last May, Gallatin City-County Health Department hired its first mental health consultant to work with its home visitation program. That followed the department pairing staff in seven day care centers with behavioral health consultants who have early childhood experience.

Health officer Matt Kelley said the effort is to build services into settings most likely to spot social and emotional needs early on.

“We tend to focus on the person in the ER who has nowhere to go but is in a mental health crisis, and we should,” Kelley said. “But we can’t forget the most important stage of human development, 0-5. The idea is to take a prevention approach when kids brains are forming and they’re becoming people.”

The work is tied to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant that began in 2014. The money stops Sept. 30.

Kelley said he’s requesting $115,000 from Gallatin County over the next year to continue the work.

That would hold onto the department’s sole behavioral health professionals: the consultant hired last year and a position that connects mental health efforts across local agencies.

“We’re trying to maintain expertise in a discipline that has become the biggest public health challenge of our community,” Kelley said. “We’ve built the machine to do this work. It would be a shame to put that machine in mothballs and not use it because we can’t get funding.”

Kelley is also applying for grants for the work.

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services received the initial federal grant to improve services for young children and their families with pilots in Park and Gallatin counties.

Sarah Webb is the child wellness coordinator with the grant, dubbed Montana Project Launch, and one of the positions Kelley is trying to keep.

She works with other organizations rolling out the effort. That includes Bozeman Health, Community Health Partners, Childcare Connections, Thrive, United Way and Park County Community Foundation.

“Most mental health providers are trained to enter a kid’s life at the age of 7. We’re working on some unique strategies put in earlier,” Webb said. “We want to make sure professionals that work with infants and young children are prepared to support those social, emotional and mental health aspects.”

In the example of child care, mental health consultants work with kids, educators and families. They’re performing universal screenings for the kids and offer a chance for parents to talk about where their kids are strong and where they’re concerned.

The consultants work with the families and teachers to develop specialized plans if needed.

Webb said the support helps keep people in positions that nationally see a lot of turn around.

Amie Gatterdam, the maternal child health program manager with the Gallatin health department, said it’s not just providers who noticed a difference. More families have connected to the department’s programs since the grant rolled out.

The free home visiting program brings social workers and nurses into the homes where there are children 8 or younger. It can help with breastfeeding and nutrition, monitoring a child’s development or referring people to more resources.

“It’s really for anybody, parenting is so hard you don’t know what to expect,” Gatterdam said.

When the grant launched in 2014, organizations referred 207 families to the program. Last year, nearly 700 families found the service.

Mike Mestas is the recent hire on the team that balances his role working with fathers who are veterans and as the group’s mental health consultant.

Each week, Mestas sets aside open door hours where other home visitors can talk through cases or a hard day. The team also meets once a month to talk about their work or tools for their own well being.

“If they’re at their best operational being, then they’re giving everything they can give as well,” Mestas said. “It’s burnout prevention and trying to navigate the heaviness that can come with this job.”

He said since his job is a pilot in the state, it’s still unfolding.

Mestas has done several home visits to consult with families but most of his work so far has been with the workers going out into Gallatin County each day.

“This is the starting point. It will be interesting to see how this grows in six months or a year from now,” Mestas said. “I see us continuing down the same path and helping other counties within Montana utilize this model.”

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

Katheryn Houghton is the city government and health reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.