April 28, 2020 — RELEASE:
Williams: “He’s ducking a tough issue that’s one of the top public health concerns in Montana today.”
Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Whitney Williams says she’s greatly disappointed that Lieutenant Gov. Mike Cooney at the last minute pulled out of a debate on critically important mental health issues facing Montana.
“Montana’s mental health system is in crisis, and that problem is only made worse during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Williams said. “It’s one thing for an out-of-state multi-millionaire like Greg Gianforte to be a no-show, but it’s really disappointing when Montana’s own lieutenant governor isn’t willing to debate the issue.”
The Montana Healthcare Foundation in Bozeman says that in local public health and hospital needs surveys mental illness and substance abuse disorders rank as “the most important health challenges in many communities.” (https://mthcf.org/focus-areas/behavioral-health/)
“Leadership starts by showing up, not by dropping out,” Williams added. “It’s an online virtual debate, and my opponent virtually disappeared Monday. He’s ducking a tough issue that’s one of the top public health concerns in Montana today. I hope Mike will find the time to reconsider and join this debate.”
Williams and Cooney both had committed to appearing in an online forum at 4 p.m. this Thursday sponsored by the Montana Behavioral Health Alliance. On Monday, Cooney backed out of the forum and said his running mate, state Rep. Casey Shreiner, would not be able to fill in for him either.
Williams said she would adjust her schedule to debate this issue with Cooney at any time because it is so important to Montanans, especially during the coronavirus pandemic — when people have lost their jobs, are uncertain about the future, and anxiety has risen.
Behavioral health is a key issue in the gubernatorial race. The issue was highlighted in a debate Saturday sponsored by Montana Farmers Union, state and national cattlemen’s associations and the Northern Plains Resource Council. The groups have highlighted the growing problem of behavioral health issues, along with high rates of suicide, in rural America and Montana.
Williams has been outspoken about her concerns surrounding the current administration’s decision to cut millions of dollars out of the state’s mental healthcare programs – a decision Cooney has been unable and unwilling to defend.
“Budget cuts were made in 2017 and 2018, and bad decisions were made,” Williams said at a debate in February. “I would have made different ones. As a result, our state’s mental healthcare system is upside down, and it’s hurting kids, hurting families and it’s hurting our communities.”
Cuts to mental health programs have led to fewer services for struggling Montanans and inefficiently shifted the behavioral healthcare burden to schools, local governments, law enforcement, and hospitals, where such problems are not comprehensively addressed and care can be more expensive.
Meanwhile, calls to Montana 211, a crisis healthcare line, have spiked 70 percent in this pandemic, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported Tuesday. The phone line links callers with support services such as mental health. (https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/coronavirus/calls-to-montana-help-line-climb-through-virus-outbreak/article_06be6f21-3073-59a8-a191-ed8f756b945f.html)
“In 2008 with the recession, the impact was so gradual and spread out over years,” said Mandy St. Aubyn with the Help Center Inc. in Bozeman, The Chronicle reported. “This is a mass increase in community need.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, who also has skipped debates and avoided town hall meetings, is not attending the behavioral health forum. His running mate will answer questions for him.