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Making it in Big Sky: Women in Action & Big Sky Natural Health

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By Brandon Walker EBS LOCAL EDITOR

BIG SKY – COVID-19 has disrupted the daily routines of almost everyone in some form or fashion. Possibly one of the greatest impacts the virus has placed on our population is the strain on mental and physical health. The unknown, coupled with orders to stay at home have left mental and physical health even larger tasks to address. Two local businesses, Women in Action and Big Sky Natural Health, are working to help alleviate health-related challenges both throughout the pandemic and beyond. 

WIA began 15 years ago in Big Sky with the help of nine original founding members. Today, executive director, Jean Behr is the only employee of WIA—most WIA counselors work on a contract basis. Behr said there is no timeline as to when WIA will begin to host in-person counseling services again, but they will continue to serve everyone via telehealth options.

BSNH joined the Big Sky community just six months ago when Dr. Kaley Burns relocated from Billings, MT. Currently, the Minnesota native focuses her efforts on ensuring her business remain open and serving the community remotely and in-person, but only when essential as COVID-19 has progressed. 

Explore Big Sky: What adjustments have you made to address COVID-19 guidelines?

Kaley Burns (BSNH): We are continuing to space patients out 30 minutes between visits for sanitizing/wiping surfaces and to reduce contact among patients; I am the only one going into the office to interact with patients (office staff is working remotely); additionally the telemedicine, donning PPE for the essential in-office or house call visits; encouraging patients to call prior to coming in for screening purposes; doing supplement drop off or curb pick up.

Jean Behr (WIA): All of the counselors have shifted the patients that are comfortable from in-person counseling to telehealth or on a virtual platform like Zoom or Facetime, and then some of our counselors are taking on new clients as well as we’re all sort of adjusting to this new reality. Some people are really comfortable with the online platform, others haven’t been as eager to take it on, but we are seeing a gradual uptick in the number of folks who are reaching out for services, which is really great because we’ve been offering free counseling through the month of April, which may extend into May, depending on the availability of funding.

Dr. Kaley Burns in front of her business, Big Sky Natural Health. PHOTO COURTESY OF KALEY BURNS

EBS: How has your daily work routine been impacted by COVID-19?

JB (WIA): My work had been pretty solo, you know I’m the only staff of [WIA], and a lot of our work is just me administering our programs and working with our partners and a lot of just administrative work. Because of the needs of the community to come together we’ve been working a lot in coalition with Big Sky Community Organization, Big Sky Arts Council, Big Sky Relief [Fund], the [Big Sky] food bank. The community has come together so quickly to address these short-term needs and then we also have a long-term vision for addressing the continued gaps in behavioral healthcare and really forming a stronger social safety net. Ironically, I’ve been working a lot more with folks in the community, all virtual of course. 

KB (BSNH): I have essentially been on-call 24/7 for the “shelter” time period while also working more flexible hours, due to a reduced patient load. Prior to this we had been increasing steadily each month. Happily, also with enjoying more time outdoors. I have also used this time to hone-in on my personal health and daily habits, which has helped me to endure this time.

EBS: What do you believe has been the biggest impact of COVID-19 on physical and mental health?

KB (BSNH): The emotional strain from this pandemic is significant. I don’t know that there is one impact but rather the combination of multiple factors: fear from the virus itself, in addition to prolonged physical distancing coupled with social isolation. These heighten the influence on our mental health, which in turn, affects our physical health. This can manifest differently for each person whether that be depression, anxiety, insomnia, trauma, fatigue, etc. As humans we thrive by being connected and can struggle with uncertainty. We have to work hard for connection now and face daily uncertainty—it’s a double-edged sword.

JB (WIA): I really think the biggest impact has been, for folks who aren’t mentally healthy and physically healthy, this has been a shock to the system and so, what one of my main focuses has been on is lifting up the fact that everyone is struggling right now and that this feeling in your chest is real, like it’s anxiety. We’re all feeling so much pressure, we’re all being pulled in a million directions and really stressing that it’s okay to feel this way. 

EBS: How can individuals continue to address physical and mental health needs as society slowly gets back on track?

JB (WIA): I think the most important thing—again I’m not a mental health professional, I’m not a health expert, but just as somebody who is paying pretty close attention—I think we all need to follow the guidelines and maintain social distancing and take precautions to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy because I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet…To just keep in mind that this is a marathon and in order to not stress our healthcare services we have to find ways to get outdoors, stay active, stay connected to our loved ones but not for a moment think that we’re out of the woods.

KB (BSNH): One step at a time. For many of us, we have a lot in our environment that can empower us to take care of our health. Go back to the foundations: how you are eating, are you consuming enough fluids, getting moving, spending time in nature, are you sleeping well at night, how is your digestion. Additionally, find your support; whether that involves talking to someone, journaling, movement, musical expression, meditation or other, there are profound healthful outlets. It is also best to be honest with ourselves about how we are doing. I know firsthand that it can be hard for someone to admit that they are having a hard time, but it is okay to feel how you do and even to feel conflicting emotions. It is the grandness of being alive. 

Women in Action board members (L to R): Marne Hayes, Betsy McFadden, Sue Arneson, Stacey Chapman. PHOTO COURTESY OF JEAN BEHR

EBS: What advice do you have for individuals who may be considering seeking physical or mental health assistance?

KB (BSNH): It is okay, and I encourage people to ask for help. Make the appointment—that is the first step. Once you do that, you have someone on your team whether that be a therapist, nutritionist, holistic practitioner or primary care, just get yourself to the starting point.

JB (WIA): Do it. You know we all have a best friend, a partner, you know maybe a faith leader that we turn to and in times of struggle. Mental health practitioners are there for you but they’re a step removed. They’re going to listen to you without judgement. They will offer maybe a different perspective and they’ll help you build the skills that you need to better manage your mental health and it’s important for all of us to recognize right now that we are feeling stressed.

EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

JB (WIA): I think the best business advice I’ve ever received or maybe something that I’ve mirrored from a former colleague is to really care about the work and to care about everyone you come into contact with. Non-profit work is challenging, it’s emotionally taxing, it doesn’t always pay the best but when you do love your work and you are truly interested in the people who support your organization financially, or they show up to volunteer, like get to know them. Get to know why they care about the work and they will keep coming back. 

KB (BSNH): It’s a combo from two individuals close to me: “You can’t always wait for someone to give you permission. You just have to do it. Approach it with humility and a willingness to do whatever it takes, even if that means you have to work really hard for a long time.”

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