Mental health stigma, access add challenges to receiving care

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Like family

Dillon resident Dean Carpenter, right, with his counselor Jeanette Prodgers outside the Southwest Community Health Center. Carpenter credits Prodgers and the staff at the center for helping him get through tough medical and emotional challenges. Casey S. Elliott photo

When it comes to mental health, some people know they need counseling and cannot conveniently get that help. For others, the notion would never enter their minds without a nudge from a friend or doctor.

“I never would have thought of it myself,” 62-year-old Dillon resident Dean Carpenter said. “When I was younger it wasn’t talked about – you just didn’t.”

Montana is consistently in the top five states for suicide rates across the nation over the past 30 years. Its heavily rural population, weather, altitude and social isolation are just a few of the factors that contribute to that statistic. National and local health care providers are working to ensure mental health is included as part of periodic health checkups, in the hopes of removing the stigma associated with therapy.

Carpenter, a retired government trapper, was what many people think of as the typical Montanan – outdoorsy, pull-up-your-boot-straps kind of person.

“I was tougher than a boiled owl. When you fell down and got hurt, you picked yourself back up,” he said. “When I was growing up, I did boxing, wrestling, football – I liked those one-on-one sports. I had lots of practice with my two older brothers. They used me as a dummy to roll around with. It got me gritty that way.”

Carpenter spent decades trapping animals for Wildlife Services in Montana, Idaho and Nevada. He volunteered as an EMT for a local service. Over time, the loss of family members – first his son, then his father, and then his first wife – stacked up. He started seeing a psychiatrist in Nevada, though that lasted only about a week. They did not get along.

Carpenter retired, and returned to Montana not long after to care for family back home.

“I just couldn’t handle it no more. I tried to talk to my family, but I would get so wound up, and they would get so wound up.

“I was the one that had to be the strong one, and it was hard on the family. They were all going through their own grief. You felt like you needed to be the rock,” he added.

Jeanette Prodgers, a licensed clinical social worker, is Carpenter’s second counselor. She has worked with Carpenter for about three years, helping him get through depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Carpenter chose her after Dr. Megan Evans suggested he speak to a counselor during a health visit.

“It’s hard – a lot of times I can’t talk to just my family, because they get all upset. I needed to have someone to go talk to, who will understand and be there for you – it makes a whole lot of difference,” he said, adding the entire staff at the Southwest Montana Community Health Center is like family now. “It got to the point I had to do something different, and it helped.”

Lima resident Candy Calloway, on the other hand, knew she wanted and needed therapy. The challenge was being able to get it.

“I’ve been in counseling since I was in my 30s. I’ve tried every medication, pretty much, that’s out there,” the 70-year-old said.

Calloway was working as a psychiatric nurse in the Los Angeles, California, area. She was eventually diagnosed with treatmentresistant depression, where medication does not help. She tried to switch gears, and went to the police academy. Cadet training taught her how to push through mentally stressful situations, which she used to try to get through the tough times. She ended up retiring and moved to Montana about 12 years ago to be with family.

The cultural differences, small town life and long winters took a toll; Calloway said she sought counseling not long after settling in town.

“It was like for me, at the time, ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” she said. “I’m not used to living in a small town. Within five minutes of being here, I wanted to seek help.”

Calloway said her family has a history of mental health needs, so this was not a taboo subject for her. The roughly hour-long drive from Lima to Dillon to receive services was a barrier for Calloway, though she was able to find a counselor quickly. Bad weather would often keep her from appointments, but she persists – because it helps.

“I give (Prodgers) a lot of credit for helping me so much,” she said.

Carpenter and Calloway praised the staff that continue to help them with their challenges, and encourage others to seek that help if needed.

“It makes a whole lot of difference in somebody’s life – I know that for a fact,” Carpenter said. “I know it’s made a big difference in mine.”