The state with the highest suicide rate desperately needs shrinks

Behind a nurses’ station, a dry-erase board says that today is March 30. It’s actually late June. For three months the unit has been dormant, lights out. Shutdowns are hardly unusual; sometimes they last years. Since its grand opening in 2002, this unit—the only place in eastern Montana where a person with a mental health emergency can be admitted for inpatient care—has languished in a state of desertion more often than not.

The problem isn’t a lack of demand; Montana is cursed with the highest suicide rate in the nation, and it’s higher in this predominantly rural part of the state than in any other region. During the rare times when the unit is up and running, the supply of incoming patients is predictably, and sometimes frantically, consistent. The problem here is staffing. Administrators can’t find anyone to run the place.

Last fall, after years of fruitless recruiting drives and ad placements, the center finally snagged a recently graduated psychiatrist to oversee the unit. This spring, not long after the local newspaper celebrated her arrival, she quit. “I think maybe it was just a little too much for someone without experience to take on, and I don’t blame her,” says Shanks, who as marketing director is part of the recruitment team. “There’s such a huge need out here, and I can see the burnout in mental health providers that comes out of that.”

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