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‘It Takes a Village’ to Treat Mental Illness

By Morgan Tuss

The Billings Police Department (BPD) has reported an increase in calls that involve mental illness, within the last two years. The latest report showed that crime involving mental illness cases are up 9.35% from 984 reports, in 2014, to 1076 reports, in 2015. These statistics do not include incidents involving individuals with undetermined illnesses, which BPD said could significantly add to those numbers.

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week – an appropriate time to take a closer look at mental health issues and treatment in our community.

Increasing Incidents

Lieutenant Neil Lawrence of the BPD offered insight into how the department handles mental illness. He said that Billings officers regularly encounter individuals who struggle with mental illness.

“At least on a daily basis, you’re going to have contact with someone who is attached to a mental illness,” said Lawrence.

He said that police awareness and capability to handle mental illness has increased since the time that he was hired by the department, 22 years ago. He explained that each officer undergoes Crisis Intervention Training which incorporates scenarios of common disturbances and skills on how to deescalate situations. He also said that officers often work with local agencies like Tumbleweed to help find placement and treatment for troubled individuals.

“If we can get them the help they need then we’re certainly going to try to help,” said Lawrence.

Treating Those in Need

There are a number of organizations in Billings which treat individuals struggling with psychiatric and mental health needs. Two of them are Tumbleweed and Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch (YBGR).

Tumbleweed provides overnight, drop-in care; outpatient and crisis counseling for families and individuals; and counseling services within two of the Billings high schools. Jamie Rettig, the Lead Counselor at Tumbleweed, reported that during the fiscal year of 2015, they impacted 482 individuals through their drop-in care and 558 individuals through crisis counseling and family mediation. They also average 227 calls per month on their crisis line.

“The need has increased. I definitely have seen that,” she said. “I think there are some great gaps that can be filled.”

She also recognized the importance of reaching youth and families sooner in their life rather than later.

“We need to be catching kids earlier… By the time they see these places their issues are usually much more compounded,” said Rettig.

Like Tumbleweed, YBGR offers care within schools as well as outpatient child and family counseling, but also offers other services such as residential treatment, Home Support Services, Targeted Case Management, school-based Behavior Support Specialists, Supported Employment for youth seeking jobs, and Therapeutic Foster Care.

“We are committed to building new solutions, adapting existing services, and partnering with others to address these growing needs,” said Mike Chavers, CEO of YBGR.

Chandra Perez, the Clinical Director for YBGR, said that one of the difficulties of treating mentally ill patients is trying to find the balance of properly treating them in their environment of choice.

Perez said, “When kids move to a different environment, there’s a sense of trauma, anxiety—stress for the kids. Because of that research, people want to try everything they can to keep the child in the home.”

She said that while in-home treatment is the first choice, it may not always be the right approach.

Tumbleweed and YBGR both treat many kids suffering from past trauma.

“Many of our kids come from a background of trauma, either in their home of origin or throughout the foster care system. So, them staying in that trauma and chaos isn’t necessarily the most healthy,” said Perez.

Perez also said that the problems associated with individuals’ unwillingness to seek treatment for mental illness are the stigmas attached to them and a lack of education.
“More than half of the population at some time throughout their life has some diagnosis of mental illness, so chances are that other people won’t be judging you. The nice part, also, about mental health services is that they’re typically confidential,” said Perez.

Billings-native and graduate psychology student Alexa Huschka is trying to combat that exact issue—a lack of education. Huschka studies school psychology at the University of Oregon and said that erasing the stigma behind mental illness comes from being informed and understanding.

“It’s really important for people to learn about mental illness and how sometimes, it’s something that can just happen. No one is less of a person because they have a mental illness,” she said.

Her education consists of identifying student learning disabilities, behavior support, and collaborating with parents and teachers to help the student succeed.

“For students struggling with a mental illness, receiving help in any form is taking control and fighting for a better life,” said Huschka.

Orchard Elementary is taking a charge on implementing positive thinking. YBGR Behavior Support Specialist, Breanna Maples said there is a motto that they use to encourage staff and students at the school—“It takes a village.”

And Billings is just that.

For more information about Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch visit, e-mail, or call 1-800-726-6755.
For more information about Tumbleweed visit or call their 24-hour crisis counseling hotline at 1-888-816-4702.

A Great Place to Grow Up

Donald Finch was used to being on his own. His mom was rarely home, working night shifts as a nurse in order to feed her eight children. His dad was an alcoholic. As the second oldest, Donald knew it was up to him to take care of himself and his siblings. But it wasn’t long until social services put them in the foster care system.

“I’d stay with one family for a little while and then they’d come and uproot me,” he said.

Donald felt stripped from his family. He was craving a home, and that’s what he found at Yellowstone.

df-001-web“I came out here in the fall of ’57.” He was caught stealing beer, cigars, and money. The judge gave him the choice between Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility and the Boys Ranch.

“I always liked the idea of a ranch,” he said. Donald was the 10th boy to stay at Yellowstone, where he lived for close to six years.

“It was a great place to grow up,” he said. “It was like a home. It was a good place to live. It felt like a big family.”

But Donald still yearned to connect with his biological family. This made the holidays tough.

“When Christmas rolled around, everyone at the Ranch here got to go home,” he said. “I was the only kid here. I had to do the chores, milk the cows, feed the hogs. I resented that because I was the only one here.” But his lodge parents made him feel at home and like he was a member of their family.

Donald’s days at the Ranch started at 3 or 4 a.m., when he would check the water. He would farm in the corn and wheat fields, garden, irrigate, and work with the horses. He helped build lodges on the ranch, as well. When he was done working, he knew he could go back to the lodge for a home-cooked meal.

df-004-web“Mrs. McNeal was a super good cook,” he said. “When she baked pies for dessert, you’d get about a quarter slice of pie. She didn’t skimp at all when it came time to feed you. She made darn sure you got fed well.”

It was those caring relationships with staff that Donald remembers most.

“They were positive role models,” he said. “They taught you a lot of values.”

And they gave him a family when he couldn’t be with his own.

“It was a great place,” he said. “It helped me grow up and gave me a lot of good direction in life. The Boys Ranch was the best thing that ever happened in my life.”

Yellowstone Academy Classroom Converted into Sensory Room

Students at Yellowstone Academy will be wiggling around their classroom nonstop this fall. However, their teacher isn’t worried. In fact, she’s excited to teach them in a new state-of-the-art classroom that was designed specifically for their needs.

Prudence Lybeck teaches students in the sensory classroom.
Prudence Lybeck teaches students in the sensory classroom.

“They’ll now have a desk where they can sit and bounce and pay attention,” said Prudence Lybeck, the special education teacher for kindergarten through third grades at Yellowstone Academy. “The new classroom will really add to the sensory-based teaching I already incorporate into their learning activities.”

Lybeck will teach about five high-needs students in the self-contained, special education classroom this fall. They will enjoy new carpeting and paint, as well as ergonomic furniture pieces that include swinging footrests, bouncing seats, and easy-to-move desks. The classroom remodel was made possible by partnerships with 360 Office Solutions, A-line Drafting and Design, Pierce Flooring and Cabinet Design, and Sherwin Williams.

Yellowstone Academy staff work with students in the remodeled classroom on the first day of school.
Yellowstone Academy staff work with students in the remodeled classroom on the first day of school.

“We hope that after they’ve had a chance to use the furniture, they will see a positive change in the kids,” said Frank Cross, an owner of 360 Office Solutions. They donated about $15,000 worth of time and materials.

Pierce Flooring and Cabinet Design donated antimicrobial Millikan carpet tile and installation at a value of $3,000. “We strongly believe in the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch and have for years,” said Jon Pierce, the general manager of the flooring division. “We love giving back to our communities that help drive our business, as well.” The Pierce family of businesses also includes Pierce Homes, Pierce RVs, and Pierce Leasing.

As Lybeck prepared for the school year in a classroom under construction, she said she appreciates the generosity of the community. “We are so grateful that these companies have created a sensory learning environment to help our students continue to grow in a safe place,” she said.

Yellowstone Academy is a fully accredited K-12 program through AdvancED Accreditation and an accredited K-8 elementary district through Montana’s Office of Public Instruction. It is located at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, a nonprofit organization that is trusted locally and nationally as a leader in the field of mental health care for children and their families. YBGR has impacted more than 10,000 youth and their families since 1957 through Residential Services in Billings, Community Based Services throughout Montana, and the Yellowstone Academy in Billings.