Brenda Kneeland, LCPC, LAC, Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center CEO
The Mignon Waterman Award was created in 2017 to honor the life and legacy of Mignon Waterman. Mignon was one of the Montana Healthcare Foundation’s founding trustees, and throughout her career, she devoted herself to improving Montana’s behavioral health system.
Brenda Kneeland, LCPC, LAC, is this year’s Mignon Waterman Award recipient in recognition of her leadership of the Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center (EMCMHC) and her innovative efforts to make behavioral health services widely available in Eastern Montana. The Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana nominated Brenda for the award, and EMCMHC will accept the $10,000 award funds on her behalf.
“I am humbled and honored to receive this award. The achievements highlighted have been the result of the EMCMHC Administrative Team and employees’ hard work and dedication in improving and delivering behavioral health services in Eastern Montana. These people are achieving what was once thought to be impossible, and I’m honored to be part of the EMCMHC team.” – Brenda Kneeland, EMCMHC CEO
Brenda is a fourth-generation Montanan, born and raised in Stevensville. As CEO of EMCMHC, Brenda has shifted how the organization operates and implemented new and innovative programs to make behavioral health services – including mental health and substance use – available and accessible in Eastern Montana.
Based in Miles City, EMCMHC has provided mental health services in Eastern Montana for the past 54 years. Its service area spans 48,000 square miles covering 17 frontier counties with a population of roughly 80,000 people.
Like other community mental health centers across the state, EMCMHC operated primarily as an outpatient service model that required clients to come into EMCMHC offices for services. However, in Eastern Montana, this way of delivering care is problematic because of the extreme distances between communities and the reality that the people who need services the most may not be able to travel.
Brenda realized that to provide care for people across its service area successfully, EMCMHC would have to make it easier to access treatment, so Brenda and her team decided to focus on finding ways to bring behavioral health services into the community.
The Montana Assertive Community Treatment (MACT) Program provided a solution. With MACT, small teams of health professionals travel into rural and frontier communities to deliver behavioral health treatment and connect people with other health and social services. MACT is intended to help people with longstanding, severe, or disabling mental illnesses continue living and functioning safely in their communities.
Getting MACT up and running required an openness to trying an innovative approach, a commitment to collaboration, and strong community partnerships. Brenda began by gathering support from the Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana, the DPHHS Addictive and Mental Disorders Division, and the Montana Healthcare Foundation. She then worked to strengthen local partnerships with Frontier Psychiatry and rural and critical access hospitals throughout Eastern Montana.
To date, EMCMHC has deployed three MACT teams (headquartered in Miles City, Glasgow, and Glendive/Sidney), providing services to all 17 counties in its service area. All three teams provided services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and are currently fully staffed, operational, and nearing client capacity (serving up to 50 clients each).
MACT has allowed EMCMHC to become nimbler in its operations, create better community partnerships, and provide more effective, responsive care to people living across its vast frontier service area.
In April 2022, Governor Gianforte visited the EMCMHC office and met with MACT staff and clients, who shared about the positive impact the teams were having.
While with the Glasgow MACT team, Governor Gianforte established May as Mental Health Awareness Month in Montana.
In addition to making MACT services available throughout the region, Brenda and her team at EMCMHC also play a leading role in building and strengthening partnerships with other community organizations, including health care, social services, and law enforcement. In the past 18 months, EMCMHC has implemented other projects to help make behavioral health services more widely available, including:
- Integrating Behavioral Health Services into Primary Care: Primary care providers serve a vital role in the behavioral health system, providing more than half of all behavioral health services, according to national studies. Doing this job well requires behavioral expertise on staff, which is hard to find for many rural practices. EMCMHC makes behavioral health services available in primary care offices by placing licensed mental health therapists in hospitals in Sidney, Forsyth, Terry, Culbertson, and Miles City.
- Bringing Behavioral Health to Detention Facilities: EMCMHC partnered with Custer County to implement a behavioral health program at the Custer County Detention Center. The program screens inmates for behavioral health issues and provides medication management, care management, peer support, and aftercare coordination to reduce relapse and recidivism.
- Supporting Substance Use Prevention for Young People: EMCMHC has prevention specialists working throughout its 17-county service area to educate and provide counseling to young people on substance use and other high-risk behaviors.
- Providing Mental Health Support in Schools: EMCMHC expanded its Comprehensive School and Community Treatment (CSCT) Program to include Malta Public School. CSCT is a school-based program that makes a mental health professional available for students who need extra support.
- Treating Stimulant Disorders: EMCMHC is participating in the Treatment of Users of Stimulants (TRUST) state-wide pilot to treat stimulant use disorders, like methamphetamine use. The program uses behavioral health strategies –in- person or over telehealth – to help people reduce and eventually stop their stimulant use.
Under Brenda’s leadership, the EMCMHC is changing how mental health and support services are provided – and accessed – in Eastern Montana. By bringing together teams of health professionals to provide high-level treatment and supportive services for people where they live, EMCMHC is helping people with mental illness and substance use disorders live and thrive in Eastern Montana. While starting a new program that serves some of the most vulnerable people living across Montana’s broadest geographic area is daunting, EMCMHC faces the challenge head-on with positivity and enthusiasm born out of the knowledge that they’re making a difference.