By Larisa Hammond
I knew when I was 16 years old that I would spend my life in some sort of service to others. My mother was the director of the local women’s shelter, a “Back to Work” program for unemployed miners and the local food bank.
I was often recruited to volunteer for these different organizations and other community outreach groups. I grew up in the shadow of the Berkely Pit, the largest superfund (toxic) site in the world and witnessed the loss that devastated my community when the price of copper plummeted and mines shut down. I understood early on the complexities of generational poverty, grief and mental health struggles — and how this shared, lived experience shaped all our lives.
Naturally, this background informed my interest in community development and health care — but what truly shaped how I work as a provider was my daughter’s struggle to access adequate mental health care in our home state of Montana.
Early on in my training, I knew I wanted a career in public health; I was more interested in the prevention of disease than the treatment of preventable diseases. I worked in homeless shelters, prisons, half-way houses and on the streets — bringing health care to people in a way that was accessible without judgment. It was hard work, and I loved it, spending nearly two decades doing this work as a public health nurse.
I was at the top of my career, taking on leadership roles and implementing programs for delivering health care to the community, when my life shifted. Everything changed — dramatically and with such force that even now, it is hard to understand — when my 13-year-old daughter started struggling with anorexia and bulimia nervosa. We knew she needed help. Yet, even with all my experience in improving access to care in a rural state, I was suddenly incapable of getting care for my own daughter.
At the time, there were only a few nearby therapists who understood the complexities of eating disorders, and there were absolutely no inpatient facilities that provided the medical and psychological support in the entire state of Montana.
This meant that for 10 years, my daughter’s necessary inpatient care took place exclusively out of state. Hundreds of thousands of dollars later — and days lost pleading with insurance companies, getting her to appointments, finding tutors, tracking down skilled therapists locally and trying to maintain my career to keep my health insurance — we were all exhausted.
Our family was not the only one struggling to find and afford care. At work, I began doing home visits with new mothers and their babies, and I discovered that many of these young women were grappling with untreated psychiatric illnesses and comorbid substance use disorders. Like with my daughter, my responsibility to help my patients find quality psychiatric care felt nearly impossible.
Witnessing these unacceptable barriers to and gaps in care inspired me to pursue an advanced degree in nursing, leaning heavily on my public health roots, but with a focus on access to supportive, psychiatric care. I wanted to provide mental health services to patients in need, meeting them in their homes and assessing the environment, culture and family dynamics, all of which drastically impact mental health and well-being.
The pandemic has illuminated the mental health crisis in the state of Montana, but it has also created an opportunity to demonstrate the power of telehealth to connect people to quality psychiatric care in their homes. I am now working for Frontier Psychiatry, a company of passionate, dedicated psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners and family practice practitioners who deliver psychiatric care via telehealth appointments across the entire state.
After 10 inpatient hospitalizations and thousands of hours spent in therapy, my daughter Maggie is thriving. She is a fierce advocate for quality psychiatric care for all Montanans and believes in the power of open dialogue and vulnerability.
She is a force — and I am a better mother, nurse and human because of her influence. Indeed, it is the brave, innovative people, like my daughter and the founders of Frontier Psychiatry, who make access to quality psychiatric care not just a possibility, but a reality.
Larisa Hammond is a family nurse practitioner, working with Frontier Psychiatry in Bozeman, Montana. She and her husband Rob own a tire store and have raised four children. They are expecting a granddaughter in December.
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