Drug overdose is the fourth leading cause of injury-related deaths in Montana, according to death statistics for 2007 to 2018, yet 92 percent of those with a substance use disorder are not receiving any treatment.
It’s a frustration all too familiar to the clinicians and peer support advocates who work in the chemical dependency sector in Sidney, among them, Donald Bauman with Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center, which covers a 17-county area including Richland County with a variety of mental and behavioral health services.
“Eighty too 90 percent of all the clientele throughout EMCHMC are court-ordered,” Bauman told the Sidney Herald.
Right now, he only has two or three clients in Richland County. He believes that should be a lot higher number — but getting people to seek care before they land in legal trouble is challenging, and many people he’s talked to still don’t seem to realize the service is there.
“We are here,” Bauman said. “And you don’t have to be referred by a court lawyer or probation. You can be self-referred.”
Bauman is primarily a clinician, but he has recently completed training to become a certified peer support specialist.
“(Peer support) has only been in Montana now for two years, and it is just now hitting Richland County and Dawson County,” Bauman said. “It’s been very successful. “We find a lot of the time, people are more willing to open up and talk to a peer supporter than a counselor.”
That’s because counseling and peer support are coming at behavioral health or mental illnesses from completely different angles. Clinicians provide evidence-based treatment in as supportive a manner as possible, but at the end of the day, they are bound by fairly rigid professional boundaries.
Peer supporters, on the other hand, while also bound by certain professional restraints, are more like mentors or coaches. They have lived through addiction or mental illness and are themselves on the road to recovery. That lived experience gives them a lot to offer when it comes to supporting an individual who is newly entering recovery.
“A peer supporter works with others by sharing experiences of recovery in a positive and meaningful way,” Bauman said. “Where counseling sometimes can feel very negative and so people don’t want to do counseling. It’s a completely different mindset than a clinical setting.”
Peer supporters can also help teach individuals how to advocate for themselves to get the care they need, and help them apply what they are learning in counseling in a more practical, hands-on manner.
Peer supporters are there to be a positive voice and role model, and to offer personal experiences that can help people stick with recovery.
The new service dovetails with another new service EMCMHC is offering in partnership with Frontier, which will allow patients to gain access to medically assisted treatment for drug addiction.
These are all services that can help people avoid the costly and embarrassing legal problems that often come along with addiction — but they only work if people know about and take advantage of them.
“Right now, the big problem is people not realizing they have these options,” Bauman said.
Another issue is fear that others will discover that someone is struggling with an addiction, but Bauman is seeing where the rise of telehealth may help some overcome that barrier. With telehealth, people can participate in support groups and even receive some counseling services using the Internet, without anyone the wiser.
He’s hoping the peer support specialist role will also help him reach those who perhaps don’t have a particular diagnosis yet, but just feel they need to talk to someone.
“That is exactly what a peer supporter does,” he said. “We support our peers in a healthy, pro-social manner.”