Addressing Behavioral Health in Montana

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates have been rising in nearly every state. So much so that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of just three leading causes on the rise.

In Montana, the numbers are sobering. While the national increase in suicides was 30 percent between 1999 and 2016, that number is 38 percent in Montana. The state suffered nearly 26 suicides for every 100,000 Montanans in 2016, which is nearly twice the national average.

To compound the situation, the Health Resources and Services Administration recently reported that Montana has less than a quarter of the mental healthcare providers needed to serve its nearly 1 million residents.

In an effort to bring hope to the situation, we have launched The Big Blue Sky Initiative to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, depression and suicide, and to provide resources to help combat the crisis in your own homes and communities.

In addition to The Big Blue Sky Initiative, we’ve been busy supporting – and will continue to support – Montanans and organizations doing similar work throughout the state. There is hope and there is help. And together, we can make a difference.

A Second Opinion: Rural Health Podcast

Listen to BCBSMT’s John Doran and Riverstone Health’s Dr. Julie Kelso discuss the innovative work being done in Montana to address rural health care and behavioral health with A Second Opinion’s Senator Bill Frist, M.D.

Mental Wellness Basics – Youth Education Program

As part of the Big Blue Sky Initiative, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana has launched a statewide youth mental wellness education program. Starting in 2020, middle and high schools across Montana will have free access to Mental Wellness Basics, a digital course developed by leading education technology provider, EVERFI.

Mental Wellness Basics provides a population level approach to what is often viewed as an individual issue. Through a public health lens, Mental Wellness Basics provides students with opportunities to explore their own mental health and identify challenges that they may face. The course helps students develop concrete strategies for managing those challenges, while increasing their awareness of resources and empowering them with the knowledge, skills, and language necessary to identify and support a peer who may be struggling.

Downloadable PDFs


To learn more about bringing this critical resource to your school:

Sean Thomas

For general inquiries or media inquiries:

Jesse Zentz
Manager of Community Relations
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana

Psychiatry Residency

In late 2018, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSMT) announced the donation of $250,000 as the lead gift in a fundraising campaign launched by the Billings Clinic Foundation to help sustain Montana’s first-ever psychiatry residency.

“Montana is in the middle of a mental health crisis,” said John Doran, divisional vice president of external affairs at BCBSMT. “Part of the issue is the lack of robust behavioral health services in our state. We applaud Billings Clinic’s leadership to establish a psychiatry residency program – the first of its kind in Montana — and we share in Billings Clinic’s commitment to do all we can to prevent suicide in communities across this great state.”

BCBSMT’s gift kicked off a $3.3 million fundraising campaign by the Billings Clinic Foundation for the Psychiatry Endowment Fund, which will provide continued funding for the psychiatry residency program at Billings Clinic after its start-up period.

The endowment fund will help Billings Clinic maintain a sustainable psychiatry residency program for Montana with an emphasis on recruiting residents that possess a strong desire to practice in Montana and who have a passion for leadership and innovation.

“Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana continues to be a leader in health care in Montana and their generous commitment will help ensure the lasting improvement of mental health care access for all Montanans,” said Jim Duncan, president of the Billings Clinic Foundation. “Mental health affects all of us, and we rely on significant philanthropic support and partnerships like this to achieve the ambitious goal of training future psychiatrists to ensure affordable access to high-quality, innovative health care, delivered close to home.”

For decades, three states – Montana, Wyoming and Alaska – have consistently reported suicide rates that are, or are among, the highest in the country. These are also the only states without residency programs to train psychiatrists. Rural areas in Montana and throughout the region face a mental health crisis due to high suicide rates, isolation and a lack of mental health care resources and providers.

Considering these needs, Billings Clinic announced in September of 2018 the creation of Montana’s first-ever psychiatry residency program. Called the Montana Track at Billings Clinic, this program will be a regional track of the University of Washington Psychiatry Residency Training Program.

Breaking Suicide's Grip on Montana

For decades, Montana, where outliers of the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, has held the woeful distinction of having one of the highest suicide rates nationwide. Suicides are so pervasive that Rosston and the Montana’s Suicide Mortality Review Team are looking for help from everyone, law enforcement, clergy, health care professionals, schools, businesses and residents of all ages.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana has joined the efforts. Last year, it donated $250,000 to support a new psychiatry residency at the University of Washington designed to bring more mental health professionals to Montana. The program will train residents dedicated to working in rural areas.

The insurer also has funded a theater production, “Every Brilliant Thing,” a play about suicide, depression and resilience to be performed in 50 communities throughout the state. The tour sought to diminish the shame associated with suicide and mental illness.

Read more and watch a video about our work.

BCBSMT Healthy Kids, Healthy Families Grant Program
Since 2014, BCBSMT has awarded nearly $1.8 million in Big Blue Sky Initiative major grants, funded through the Healthy Kids, Healthy Families initiative. These grants are part of an ongoing commitment to invest in and partner with nonprofit organizations that offer sustainable, measurable programs to reach children and their families in the five following areas: nutrition, physical activity, disease prevention and management, substance abuse prevention, and suicide prevention.

HKHF suicide prevention investments:

Grandstreet Theatre: Every Brilliant Thing
Every Brilliant Thing Photo

In the summer of 2018, BCBSMT awarded Helena’s Grandstreet Theatre with a $50,000 grant to support a statewide tour of the play, “Every Brilliant Thing.” Read this story to learn more about our the tour: Filling the Behavioral Health Vacuum in a Vast Land of Need.

Grandstreet managing director Kal Poole said the community theater’s goal was to open collective community dialogues on depression and suicide across Montana through a little British play with a big message.

“Every Brilliant Thing” presents a simple message that suicide isn’t worth it and the world is brimming with things worth living for. Grandstreet conducted a 50-stop, 10-week tour, reaching more than 3,000 Montanans, including at least 750 teens. Both urban and rural communities were featured in the tour to ensure a broad range of audiences had the opportunity to participate, including all ages, genders, ethnicities, income levels, sexual preferences, and professions.

“Suicide rates are ridiculously high across Montana and are some of the highest in the nation,” Poole said. “What this particular show does is speaks to the mental health issues and how those affect and impact individuals, their families, friends and communities. But it is done so in a way that is so positive, uplifting, and so beautiful that it isn’t going to feel like a suicide prevention lecture. It’s a beautiful piece of theatre.”

The production received rave reviews from theatergoers during its short run in Helena in the fall of 2018, and organizers of the tour reported a successful tour.

Read a review of the play from the Helena Independent Record.

East Helena Public Schools: PAXIS Good Behavior Game
East Helena Public Schools PAXIS Good Behavior Game Photo

Spleems, Pax positions and granny wacky prizes don’t sound like part of a usual math lesson. However, for teachers in grades kindergarten through third grade in the East Helena School District, these are common themes that have been woven throughout their instruction since the start of the 2017 school year.

It is all part of the PAXIS Good Behavior Game, a program implemented by the district. It’s designed to reduce behavioral and mental health issues through a scientific, teacher-implemented intervention program. The program was made possible through grants provided by American Chemet and BCBSMT.

East Helena School District Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer said the district was seeking ways to not only meet the academic needs of students, but also to support and strengthen their ability to cope with the social, emotional, and behavioral challenges to improve their lifelong mental well-being. The district chose this program from recommendations and because it has proven results as an effective way to address these critical needs at an early age. That way, the district could influence student suicide resistance much later in life.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that from 2005 to 2014, suicide was the No. 2 cause of death in Montana for children ages 10-14, adolescents ages 15-24, and adults ages 25-44. East Helena families and the community are sadly familiar with the impact of teen suicide. Several youths have taken their own lives over the last five years.

“For these reasons, we reached out to American Chemet and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana for resources to address the significant concerns we were having with addressing suicide long before the critical period of a child’s life was reached,” Whitmoyer said. “The district would not have been able to bring this program to our district without our community partners. Thank you to American Chemet and BCBSMT for this tremendous gift to our kids and community.”

Read an in-depth feature on the program’s first year in East Helena Public Schools.

NAMI Walk and Awareness Network
BCBSMT has a rich history of giving back to the communities it serves. This includes working with organizations to improve mental health in adults and children.

Every year, BCBSMT sponsors the NAMI Walk, and many of our employees volunteer for the event or participate.

In addition, we are a proud supporter of the Awareness Network, which works to educate the public and end stigma in order to promote the treatment of anxiety disorders and depression.

Jason DeShaw: Serenity in the Storm
In 2015, BCBSMT sponsored and presented a statewide tour featuring country musician Jason DeShaw, who shared his profound story of recovery.

There is hope and there is help. That’s the message DeShaw, a national award-winning mental health speaker and accomplished musician, imparted throughout the 10-city tour. DeShaw is a recovering alcoholic who suffers from mental illness.

In 2014, DeShaw received the Champions Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which is awarded to individuals with a mental illness who reduce stigma through courage, leadership and service.