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Long before there was an Aurora or a Sandy Hook, a number of Montana organizations came together to talk about mental health issues. Law enforcement, mental health providers and advocates all agreed that we had to do more in our state to improve the availability of quality behavioral health care. We recognized that, for too long, our society has neglected behavioral health services. The result: We have jeopardized our people and our communities, both in terms of quality of life as well as economic impact.

Determined to do something to change the situation in our state, we formed the Montana Mental Health Caucus in order to advocate for expanded community based mental health services. The Caucus has been instrumental in getting a number of communities – from Billings and Bozeman to Butte and Hamilton – to plan and develop community crisis programs. Other cities and towns are following in their footsteps. But there is a limit to what we can accomplish on our own.

This year, the Montana Legislature declined to expand the state’s Medicaid program, which would have made access to mental health care and addictions services available to thousands of Montanans. Some are surprised to learn that Medicaid has become the primary funding source for mental health services in this country. So the absence of Medicaid funding in Montana is a significant obstacle. There is no other entity positioned to “take up the slack.” Unfortunately, after decades of budget cuts, community mental health centers are simply stretched too thin and struggling to provide essential services in the face of inadequate funding.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Recently a group of Montanans traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with our congressional delegation. The goal was to express support for the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which would restore a steady funding stream for community behavioral health centers. If passed, the legislation would ensure that community behavioral health centers cover a broad range of mental health services, including 24-hour crisis care, increased integration of physical and behavioral health needs as well as expanded support for families of people living with mental health issues.

As many as 1.5 million Americans living with a mental illness could get the care they need as a result of this legislation, including an estimated 200,000 returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan with behavioral health needs.

While in Washington, we met with Sen. Tester and expressed our appreciation for his leadership on behalf of the Excellence Act. We also met with Congressman Daines and a member of Sen. Baucus’ staff urging them to have our entire Montana delegation united on this important measure.

We understand that some in Congress are reluctant to increase federal funding – even for essential and cost-effective programs – at a time of significant budget cuts. But it is clear that this approach has proven to only jeopardize the health of the nation. We can no longer afford not to invest in community mental health services.

Make no mistake: Mental illness impacts all of us. We are in this together. That is why we are urging all Montanans to let our representatives in Washington know that we need the Excellence in Mental Health Act. Let’s hope they hear us, and move quickly – before the next tragedy strikes, reminding us that early intervention and treatment can save lives.

Brian Gootkin is the Gallatin County sheriff; Alicia Smith is a consumer representative for NAMI Montana.

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