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Meet Big Sky’s new behavioral health program officer

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Shannon Steele works to enact programming, support  

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BIG SKY –In the growing town of Big Sky, behavioral health needs are on the rise, and  exacerbating factors unique to mountain towns such as long winters, seclusion, lack of resources, and substance abuse problems have only made the issue more pressing.

Big Sky’s Shannon Steele will be tackling these challenges, among others, head-on as the community’s new behavioral health program officer. 

She is devoted to addressing what she calls the “paradise paradox,” or the concept of mental health issues being more prevalent underneath the picturesque mountain lifestyles portrayed in magazines. She says abolishing stigma and making resources more accessible are a powerful first step for Big Sky. The Big Sky Behavioral Health Initiative, a study that took place in 2019, revealed some of Big Sky’s more serious behavioral health issues.

“They really shined a light on the fact that Montana is not excluded from national trends happening, those risk factors of suicide,” said Steele of the study. “Intuitively we knew this was an issue, but this report really showed that it is, and it’s reinforced by Big Sky’s ski town culture.”

The Yellowstone Club Community Foundation presents Steele’s position in partnership with Bozeman Health, Western Montana Mental Health Center, Madison Valley Medical Center and Providence Mental Health, who all formed the Big Sky Behavioral Health Coalition in November 2020. 

As the behavioral health program officer, Steele will be working full-time to support an accessible network of behavioral health services that focus on whole-person wellness and prevention within the community.

“I am committed to highlighting community voice to address behavioral health needs for individuals who live, grow, work and recreate in Big Sky, and focused on creating innovative solutions through partnership and capacity building,” Steele said.

Steele has lived in Big Sky for over three years, during which time she worked as the human resources manager at the Hungry Moose Market and Deli. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Black Hills State University and a master’s in community health and prevention sciences from Montana State University. She’s an avid advocate for promoting community health through holistic and recreational ventures—she’s also a certified yoga instructor and serves on the board of the Southwest Montana Mountain Bike Association’s Big Sky chapter.

Since she officially began her role as the coalition’s health on June 1, Steele has been traveling around the state mapping out existing services and speaking with providers to see if they could help support Big Sky with its current behavioral health issues. 

Ciara Wolfe, VP of philanthropy for YCCF, says they have recognized that backbone support for community nonprofits and behavioral health needs in the community are essential. Steele will work close with Ruthi Solari, director of community partnerships, Dylan Thorton, outreach manager, and Whitney Brunner, annual fund director. This week, in fact, YCCF launched Volunteer Big Sky, a website devoted to connecting nonprofits with available volunteers.

“We recognize that in order to provide a spectrum of behavioral health services from prevention to treatment in the Big Sky community, it will take a lot of partners working together,” Wolfe said. “We are thrilled to have Shannon in this new role to organize and help support these partners to bring the much needed services to our community.”

Although a lot of the initiatives she will head up are still in the works, Steele says the primary community concerns she’d like to address are substance abuse and stigma reduction. She also wants those who need help to know that there are resources available in the community now. A list of these resources can be found in the sidebar.

Growing up, Steele found herself drawn to her friends when they were in need—she has always been the one to offer comfort and support, a trait she believes is what led her to the practice of psychology later in life. She still values that calling here in Big Sky.

“I feel so lucky to have been integrated into the community by the Hungry Moose,” Steele said. “Now starting this new position and being able to interface and talking to teachers and students and HR professionals and employees, it’s just broadening that community and finding a lot of common ground. Everyone wants that connection, and everyone wants that community.”

Watching the community collaboration that took place when COVID-19 struck Big Sky has kept Steele optimistic about her vast new undertaking as behavioral health officer. Steele says quick collaborations like Big Sky Relief, which provided support during the pandemic, are what make Big Sky so special—anything seems possible, she says. 

“There are a lot of challenges, but the opportunity is to get creative,” Steele said of working alongside the community’s rapid growth. “I think our partners are on board with thinking creatively, and if you can get that collaboration and partnerships together, then you can get something to work in Big Sky.”

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