Montana has the distinction for being one of the top states in the nation for its suicide rate and the problem is getting worse. Providers hope the launch of a new psychiatry residency program will stop that trend - especially among Native Americans and veterans.
Dr. Eric Arzubi said on every given day, on average 13 people are admitted every day to the emergency department at Billings Clinic because they’re suffering a mental health crisis, "on probably the worst day of their lives – psychiatric crisis, they are hearing voices, seeing things, suicidal, have attempted suicide."
He said one day last October it was 32 people.
Dr. Arzubi said instead of trying to cope – what he called "playing defense" – they’ve chosen instead to go "on the offense." He’s talking about the use of video technology to treat patients who live far away from the nearest providers, training those providers with teams of their peers, and the creation of a psychiatric stabilization unit.
"So something like a psychiatry residency program is our way of trying to play offense or get ahead of the problem rather than waiting for the crisis," he said.
Officials with Billings Clinic and the the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to launch this psychiatry residency program announced the program which will be Montana’s first medical psychiatry residency program.
Dr. Julie Kelso, the program director of the Montana Track at Billings Clinic, said the new 4-year residency program will provide 3 residents with hands-on training in Montana. She said all will be handpicked for their strong desire to serve in a rural area. When the program is fully up and running a total of 12 residents will be part of the residency.
The goal is to address the shortage of mental health providers.
"I’m hoping with this residency program we’re going to be able to treat more people. We have way too many deaths, we have way too many suicide attempts in Montana and this should be one of the avenues to help reduce those numbers," said Helmsley Trustee Walter Panzirer. He announced the trust donated $3 million to launch the residency program.
The hope is by training psychiatrists in a rural setting with peer support, these doctors will remain in Montana or the region.
"This is going to be one of the only rural focused psychiatric residency programs that really puts the emphasis on training in rural, supporting rural, and incorporating more innovative types of training and expertise," said Eric Kurtz, interim director of Helmsley’s Rural Health Care Program and neuro-developmental psychologist.
The effort to create this residency program began in 2014. It’s a partnership between Billings Clinic and the University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Applicants will be interviewed this fall with the first class of residents to start next summer.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports suicide is a persistent problem across the country but that Montana’s rate is nearly double the national average – and getting worse.
The residents are to spend their first 2 years in Seattle and their final 2 years in Montana.
The Billings Clinic Foundation has launched a $3 million endowment campaign to fund the psychiatry residency for the long term.