BILLINGS, Mont. - As the conversations around mental health in Montana continue, there's a significant need for services in our indigenous communities.

To help address that need, Montana Social Scientists is hosting a three-day conference for mental health providers with a focus on incorporating Native American knowledge into models of care.

During the three-day conference in Billings, mental health providers from around the state are learning new ways to connect to their indigenous patients and support them on their journey to wellness.

The hope is that providers attending come away with a deeper cultural understanding and sensitivity for their indigenous patients and everything they've experienced.

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS), the suicide rate among American Indians ages 11 to 24 is more than five times as high as the rest of the state for the same age group.

Kathleen Little Leaf specializes in trauma-informed care which, she says is particularly important for working with this population.

“We have trauma and all the different types of trauma, but for Native Americans, it's a little bit more unique just in regards to that generational trauma so it's a little bit more deeper,” Little Leaf said.

The conference highlights suicide prevention, chemical dependency and sharing information about a new type of provider license approved by the state.

Certified behavioral health peer support specialists are providers who have a diagnosed behavioral health disorder and are currently in recovery.

Johnny Talawyma is one of those specialists and knows what it's like to claw your way back to life after struggling with addiction.

“I was feeling a lot of hopeless like nothing was there, nothing was going to change, so eventually I just gave up and decided to drink myself to death,” Talawyma said. “I woke up in the ICU again and I was pissed off. I was pissed off at god I was mad that I came back. And I was mad at him that he saved me. So I started talking to god, creator that if you want me here will you start helping me, or start showing me opening some doors for me.”

Vanessa McNeill, owner of Montana Social Sciences says the behavioral health peer support certification will allow him and others actively working to recover from their addictions to be active in the communities that need them the most.

“Some of these tribes, they don't even have counselors, they don't have anything. So getting a warm body in there to help get them to the resources they need is the goal,” McNeill said.

The state is taking additional steps to try and address the disparities in access to mental health resources.

Terrance Lafromboise is the Zero Suicide Grant Manager for DPHHS, a program designed to raise awareness of suicide and improve care for people who are at risk for suicide.

“I think they're really wanting to understand and they're really wanting to connect to these entities, these tribal sovereign nations,” Lafromboise said. “And so for the state to recognize, we need more indigenous employees to connect to our indigenous populations makes me really grateful that we have a state that is creating inclusivity.”

If you're interested in learning more about the behavioral health peer support specialist certification, you can visit the Montana Certified Behavioral Health website here.

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