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Gallatin County officials say parts of the county’s mental health system are “crumbling” and “a lot bigger mess than people know,” thanks to short staffing and other problems, causing issues for people in crisis and law enforcement trying to help.

At Wednesday’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting, Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert and Sheriff Brian Gootkin raised concerns over issues with the Gallatin Mental Health Center and the Hope House, an adult mental health crisis stabilization center.

They brought up numerous closures of the Hope House’s secure detention in the last few months due to staff shortages and building damages.

People suffering from mental health crisis who need to be detained are taken to the Hope House before seeing a judge to determine whether they’ll go back to the community or to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.

But due to short staffing and damage to the building in recent months, Gootkin and Lambert said, law enforcement has often been unable to take people to the Hope House.

Since July of last year, the sheriff’s office has spent more than $17,000 in overtime and transportation costs to take mental health patients to other facilities in Polson and Hamilton.

“That long trip is very de-stabilizing for the respondent. That’s not a best practice,” Lambert said. “Those cases are important and we need to treat the respondents with as much tenderness and as much dignity as we can afford.”

In addition, Western Montana Mental Health Center, which oversees the Gallatin Mental Health Center and contracts with the county to provide mental health services, said that due to “recent transitions,” there will be scheduled shortages of the Crisis Response Team.

The CRT serves Gallatin, Park and Madison counties and comprises mental health professionals who conduct emergency evaluations and recommend either voluntary or emergency detention.

Usually able to respond at all hours of the day, the CRT will have 10 scheduled shortages in overnight coverage in May due to transitions within the team, according to an email sent to officials Tuesday.

During those shortages, a CRT won’t be available between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.

So folks in need of secure detention will have to wait at the hospital before being evaluated, requiring law enforcement officers to sit with the person for hours until CRT can respond, Lambert said.

“That’s serious,” Lambert said. “Those things need to be addressed and hopefully those will be done sooner than later.”

Gootkin noted that between 2014 and 2016, the number of mental health-related calls Gallatin County sheriff’s deputies responded to nearly doubled, from 334 to 655.

“For these services to not be available in a community that we have with the resources we have is unacceptable and we need to fix it,” Gootkin echoed. “We have a duty and obligation to the citizens of Gallatin County to provide those services. Period.”

The Gallatin Mental Health Center is currently without an executive director and other positions are vacant.

Gootkin said he is working with Gallatin County Commissioners on solutions, including having the county fund a mental health professional to help Western Montana Mental Health in the interim to fill in service gaps.

Gallatin County officials met with Western Montana Mental Health earlier this week to discuss the issues.

“They’ve sort of gone through a bit of a staffing crisis,” said County Commissioner Don Seifert. “They’re in a bit of disarray but we’re working with them.”

Seifert said commissioners are concerned about what this means for mental health services in the county but said that Western Montana Mental Health Center is committed to getting staffing levels back up and that the CRT will be back to running its full schedule in June.

“We’re trying to work with them to get through it,” Seifert said.

Messages to Jodi Daly, executive director of the Western Montana Mental Health Center, were not returned Wednesday.

However, in a letter to the Missoulian editor in January, Daly hinted at troubles with mental health services.

“While much attention is being paid to our state’s physical infrastructure, so, too, are basic community-based mental health services crumbling beneath our feet,” Daly wrote in the Jan. 19 letter.

Western Montana Mental Health Center runs 45 facilities in western and southwestern Montana, including in Bozeman and Livingston, and serves 15,000 people annually, Daly said.

While the letter told state legislators of the importance of funding mental health programs, Daly added that Western Montana Mental Health Center “wants to be a good partner with the state of Montana but our organization is struggling to meet its mission.”

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Whitney Bermes can be reached at wbermes@dailychronicle.com or 582-2648. Follow her on Twitter at @wabermes.

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