Missoulians experiencing a mental health crisis have someone to call — 988 — someone to show up — the mobile support team — and will soon have somewhere to go as a new crisis receiving center is set to open later this month. 

Once renovations wrap up at the end of November, the 16-bed Riverwalk Crisis Center will be open 24/7 providing adults suffering a mental health crisis with short-term assessment, treatment and connection to resources. 

On Monday, dozens of people from local governments, nonprofits, and medical and mental health organizations filled the revamped building off Wyoming Street to celebrate its upcoming opening, more than three years in the making. 

“It’s a huge deal to be here right now,” Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick told the crowd. “No one entity can do this alone. This is evidence of what happens when we come together.” 

Missoula County worked with Western Montana Mental Health, Providence Montana and a coalition of other organizations to open the center and fill a gap in behavioral health services, said Colleen Rudio, Western interim CEO.  

“It’s a true honor for everyone who stepped up to create this space and who will fill it with those who need care, support and to be respected,” she said. 

While Missoula has the mobile support team to respond to crisis calls, those individuals often need a place to go that’s not jail or the emergency room, Slotnick said. 

 “It’s a huge deal to be here right now. No one entity can do this alone. This is evidence of what happens when we come together.”

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick

At Providence St. Patrick Hospital, about 30% of avoidable emergency department stays are behavioral health-related, Jeremy Williams, director of psychiatric services, told Montana Free Press last week. 

Many people struggle to navigate the “fragmented” mental health system and face long waiting lists to see a prescriber or therapist, Williams said. Riverwalk will provide evaluations, therapy, peer support, crisis observation, medication prescribing and connection to ongoing support. Staff will link clients to services like health insurance, substance use treatment or counseling, and refer them to other resources, Williams said.  

The center will have a soft opening, with law enforcement and the mobile support team bringing in the first clients, said Ann Douglas, Riverwalk manager. Once it’s fully up and running, people can walk into the center for help. 

Clients can stay up to 24 hours at Riverwalk, located on the Western Montana Mental Health Center campus. People under the influence of drugs or alcohol can receive services as long as they are medically stable.  

The center has space for clients to meet with family and practice spiritual or cultural customs, Williams said. Providence and Western worked with people with experience navigating mental health services to design the center to have a healing, gender and culturally affirming environment, he said.

Douglas said she is excited for the center to open and to meet people in crisis “at the level they’re at.” 

“I think it’s something Missoula needs, the next level of care, and it’s something the community has asked for,” she said. 

The need for a crisis receiving center was identified in a gap analysis commissioned about four years ago by Missoula’s Strategic Alliance for Improved Behavioral Health, Williams told MTFP. The study reviewed what mental health resources Missoula was missing and found a crisis center could each day help about 20 people stabilize, safety plan and connect with other services, he said.

Strategic alliance members decided the county, Western Montana Mental Health Center and Providence would lead the crisis center project, Williams said. After difficulty finding a site for the center, Western proposed renovating its former day treatment building. 

Missoula County contributed about $1 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money and about $500,000 in other funding to help cover upfront costs. The center will bill Medicaid and insurance, but clients can receive services regardless of insurance coverage, Williams said. 

Western will employ the staff of therapists, peer support, care coordinators, nurses, crisis stabilization workers and security. Riverwalk manager, Douglas, is employed by Providence Montana, which received a grant from the Providence Well Being Trust to pay for the first year of her salary, Williams said. An advisory council will help guide the center and ensure it’s meeting its goals, he said. 

“It’s going to be a unique situation, but we’re finding it’s so difficult right now when trying to stand up services as a community to just look at one organization and say, ‘You take this on,’” he said. “It really takes so much collaboration to make sure we’re doing the best thing in our community and to manage the risk that comes with these things.” 

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Katie Fairbanks is a freelance journalist based in Missoula. Katie grew up in Livingston and graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism. After working as a newspaper reporter in North Dakota, Katie worked as a producer for NBC Montana's KECI station, followed by five years as a health and local government reporter in Longview, Wash.