Need for mental health care in Montana persists

July 25, 2022

 The grizzly bear statue in front of Main Hall on the University of Montana campus. (Provided by the University of Montana.)


University of Montana graduate school student Rachel Keo felt “pure relief” when she found out she had passed the National Counselor Exam earlier this year.

She wasn’t alone. All of the 21 students in her graduating class who took the exam this spring passed, something that didn’t surprise Keo.

“We were all pretty determined,” Keo said.

The NCE is a requirement to practice as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the state of Montana, a state experiencing a significant mental health care professional shortage.

At least 50 of Montana’s 56 counties were designated as Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA), according to a Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services designation using HPSA data from 2021.

UM Professor John Sommers-Flanagan said the exam could be compared to the legal field’s bar exam, as it tests to ensure professional competence in the field, but additional requirements are needed to become an LCPC, which can vary by state as well.

Keo said she would need to fulfill clinical and non-clinical hours, kind of like a residency, before she can get her license to practice. Of the cohort graduating this spring, Keo said nearly everyone would be staying in Montana.

 Rachel Keo, M.A. counseling student, class of 2022, is part of a UM cohort that passed the National Counselor Exam at 100 percent. (Photo courtesy of the University of Montana.)


Sommers-Flanagan said that the 100 percent passage rate is a good sign, and a pretty consistent metric for the Counseling Department, but that in order to meet the demand in Montana, schools like UM are going to need more resources, namely more faculty.

National accreditation is a double-edged sword in this scenario. Sommers-Flanagan said that being nationally accredited is a great tool in recruiting students, with the program receiving around 100 applicants last year vying for about 30 spots.

“The national accreditation standards are such that they’re going to limit the student-faculty FTE,” Sommers-Flanagan said of full-time equivalents. “We couldn’t admit 100 students and keep our national accreditation; we’d be out of compliance.”

Sommers-Flanagan said this is an obstacle across the state in terms of being able to keep accreditation and meet the demand.

“We would all need more resources because we have very clear limitations in terms of student faculty ratios,” he said.

Sommers-Flanagan said the program recently added one new faculty member, for a total of six full-time, tenure track faculty in the Counseling Department at UM, “which is the most ever.”

He said when he first taught in the program as an adjunct professor in the ’90s, two faculty members taught classes. He said the school permits students in the doctoral program to teach select classes under supervision, but said most classes are taught by faculty.

Sommers-Flanagan also spoke to a collaborative effort with Montana State University to help address mental health needs in rural communities through the grant funded Rural Mental-Health Preparation/Practice Pathway program. The schools partnered with state agencies to send graduate counseling candidates to work as counselors in rural communities as part of their schooling.

Keo is taking a break after finishing up her internship with the Student Advocacy Resource Center at UM. She said her time working at the center in Missoula inspired her to pursue working with college students when she moves to Seattle.

“They’re already in a place where they’re learning and growing and when it comes to counseling. You can see that they have a curiosity about them,” she said. “That kind of makes more fun to me.”

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Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.


 State elections officials warn of paper shortages in upcoming elections. 
July 23, 2022
Kira Lerner

MADISON, Wis. — Elections officials from 33 states, gathered for a conference under tight security, warned that the next few election cycles will be affected by paper shortages and the potential for threats from inside elections offices.

Kira Lerner

Kira Lerner is the democracy reporter for States Newsroom in Washington, D.C. She has previously covered voting, criminal justice, and civil rights issues for publications including Votebeat and The Appeal.


An annual Drag Story Hour event for children is scheduled to take place as planned in Helena this weekend during one of Montana’s LGBTQ Pride celebrations, even as law enforcement organizations track threats against the event posted online by a self-proclaimed member of the Oath Keepers, a national anti-government militia group.

The story hour events, in which drag performers wearing elaborate costumes and makeup read to children, have been taking place around the country for years, but have recently received an uptick in threats and violent rhetoric as part of broader antagonism toward the LGBTQ community

Another drag story hour event in Billings hosted by the local 406 Pride in June generated an outpouring of criticism, including a Tweet from Montana’s Republican U.S. congressman Matt Rosendale, who equated drag performance with sexually explicit content that is inappropriate for children. Event organizers responded that story hour readings were age-appropriate for children and families and did not involve adult content or performance. The event ultimately took place without disruption with hundreds of supporters in attendance. A smaller group of protesters waving signs stayed outside the gates of the Billings venue, Zoo Montana.

Leas’ posts called the story hour event “pedophile garbage” and told other users to show up and “Shut this demonic preying on children down.”

Montana Pride and Montana Book Co. told Montana Free Press Thursday that the event will proceed as scheduled, though with a higher number of patrol units from the Helena Police Department stationed near the downtown bookstore. The organizers said the county sheriff’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have also been notified.

In the report compiled for MHRN and delivered to law enforcement, the anti-extremist consulting group Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said its analysts “did not observe direct threats, but due to recent incidents of harassment and armed protests at LGBTQ+ events nationwide, there is an increased risk of harm at this event.” The report linked to a summary of such threats compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist hate groups.

Montana Pride President Kev Hamm described much of the online critique as coming from “childish bigots,” but said his organization is taking the threats seriously. Hamm said he and other Montana Pride organizers have received more death threats in the lead-up to this week’s festivities than in years past. He said Pride events and celebrations of the LGBTQ community aren’t deterred. 

“Yes, it’s going to be safe to go. We expect you to be down there. It’s a credible threat, but that’s what we’ve dealt with before,” Hamm said. 

“To choose to be queer is to choose authenticity over safety,” he continued, paraphrasing a statement that gained traction on Twitter in 2019. “And we do that every day.”

Montana Pride, previously Big Sky Pride, is hosted annually in Helena in July and is widely attended by residents from around the state. Cities and towns around Montana produced more Pride events this summer than in past years, including marches and celebrations in Billings, Livingston, Bozeman and Missoula. 

“Yes, it’s going to be safe to go. We expect you to be down there. It’s a credible threat, but that’s what we’ve dealt with before.”


Andy Nelson, executive director of the Western Montana LGBTQ+ Community Center, said his organization hired private security to monitor the June Pride events in Missoula, which mostly took place downtown. He said the celebrations took place without protests or direct threats of violent disruption, a fact that he described as lucky and surprising. Roughly a week later, he noted, a truckload of armed white supremacists were stopped by police in Idaho, allegedly en route to disrupt a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene.

“When I saw that article, my heart sank,” Nelson said. “Because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if that happened here.’ And it very well could have.” 

Nelson said he understands that members of the LGBTQ community might be more fearful about attending events this year, and that everyone should take precautions to look out for themselves and others. But at the same time, he said, a strong turnout is impactful. 

“We need to be visible as well,” Nelson said.



July 21, 2022

 (Illustration by Getty Images)


Montana Republicans are raking in the dough — and each still sitting on roughly $1 million — in their campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives in both districts.

In the state’s new western district, former U.S. House Rep. Ryan Zinke pulled in roughly double the dollars that Democrat Monica Tranel received this reporting period, according to July’s quarterly candidate reports to the Federal Election Commission.

In this reporting period, Tranel raised $372,230 in total contributions, and former Secretary of the Interior Zinke took in $791,742, according to the reports from May 19 to June 30.

Zinke has raised nearly $3.8 million in all. Tranel, a Missoula lawyer, had raised nearly $1.3 million in all.

Zinke has $918,632 to spend, and Tranel has $216,961.

In the eastern district, Republican incumbent Rep. Matt Rosendale has taken in $1.7 million so far.

Independent Gary Buchanan has raised $127,125 in all, besting Democrat Penny Ronning with $63,310 to date, according to the most recent financial reports.

In this reporting period, Rosendale counted $139,502 in contributions. Buchanan, a financial advisor, received $40,801, and Ronning, a former Billings city councilor, pulled in $15,945.

Rosendale has $1.1 million yet to spend, Buchanan has $68,963 and Ronning has $10,763.

In the eastern district, Libertarian Sam Rankin has funded his own campaign in full so far to the tune of $20,696, and he has $100 in the bank. 

In the western district, a report was not available for Libertarian candidate John Lamb through the FEC.

Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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