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Sep 25, 2023

A Conversation with Ashlynn Marasco of Journey to Wellness

This interview is part of our inaugural impact report, The Ripple Effect.

In 2019, more than 200 community leaders from Lake County and the Flathead Nation converged at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana for a 2-day community conversation called ‘Voices & Visions.’ They engaged in a process to identify solutions to their community’s most pressing health challenges. Mental health rose to the top, and participants developed and voted to direct Headwaters Foundation funds toward a new initiative, Journey to Wellness.

Journey to Wellness aims to be a vital link between those in crisis and resources for mental health stabilization and recovery. The project has brought Tribal and non-Tribal community members, mental health care providers, emergency services, law enforcement and healthcare agencies, and tribal entities together to develop a blueprint for mobile crisis intervention and prevention services in Lake County and the Flathead Nation.

We sat down with Ashlynn Marasco, Project Director for Journey to Wellness, to hear about where the pilot is headed, and their partnership with Headwaters Foundation.

What was unique about how Journey to Wellness got started?

What was unique about the Voices & Visions event was that Headwaters Foundation was attaching funding, which typically never happens in Indian Country. Usually, grantors come into the community with preconditions and criteria that are unrealistic and don’t recognize the standard of living here. Headwaters came in with a meaningful approach and gave us the space to identify what we thought would work for our community, and that for us was mental health crisis intervention and prevention through this new project, Journey to Wellness.

Can you tell us more about the need for mental health services in your community?

Here is a story – a person experiencing homelessness or crisis places a 911 call for a mental-health related reason, and an ambulance is sent out. The EMTs aren’t equipped to provide mental health services on site. Although well intentioned they don’t have appropriate training; law enforcement is in the same situation. So, this person ends up in the emergency room or in jail, and they don’t have access to a mental health care professional there either. Then the caller is stuck with a bill for an ambulance ride and an emergency room visit adding to their distress.

Our community does not have a crisis receiving center for mental health related emergencies and our network plays ‘hot potato’ with cases like these due to limitations of services, or they overrespond. An ambulance and law enforcement being sent out are viewed as an overresponse, as this displaces an ambulance crew and law enforcement from their needed service to the community while they work to stabilize and transport an individual. We saw a need to connect everyone who is, intentionally or not, doing the work of crisis intervention and mental health in our region so they can better coordinate and improve the response to mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.

How would Journey to Wellness help the person in this story?

We hope to become a resource hub for the community and an essential branch apart from the emergency services network that inspires better connections between agencies and community members, providing tailored pathways to the services they are seeking. Our project is working toward untying law enforcement and ambulance crews from crisis response by providing an additional care team specific to behavioral and mental health. That might result in a referral or transportation without having to call an ambulance, or without having law enforcement respond, lowering the chances of things escalating further. Having this alternative team equipped to intervene would help achieve the best outcome for individuals in crisis.

What has been a win or success with this project?

Journey to Wellness has been able to grow organically within the community to the point where we now have an opportunity to pursue additional funding, hire support staff, and really get to implement this pilot project. We have collaborated with other agencies and struck up some great partnerships. An example is Never Alone Recovery Support Services – we put together an adult recovery and youth panel and chose a candidate from each public school on the reservation to share their stories. Our community event shared how prevention programming for youth can be most effective and what recovery looks like in our communities. The stories we heard and the perspective from our youth left the audience in tears and they got a standing ovation for their healthy and brave choice to share. The past year alone, our project partners have grown by 66%.   

When you first encountered Headwaters Foundation, what did you think? What has the partnership been like?

When I first heard that Headwaters was coming to town with start-up funding, I was skeptical because of the way that grantors typically come into Indian Country. I thought, ‘I know how this game goes.’ But it was different, and I was blown away by the approach and the opportunity they were providing; it felt genuine. It’s hard to build relationships and be accepted in Indian Country if you don’t already have a foot in the door, but Headwaters put trust in us and has built trust with our community. They have untied us from the preconditions that we are used to seeing with grantors and given us a platform for community response and resiliency.

Thank you to Journey to Wellness for the vital work they do for their communities, and to Ashlynn for sitting down with us for this interview! 

To learn more about Journey to Wellness and get involved, check out their website and follow them on Facebook.

Find more interviews with Western Montana changemakers in The Ripple Effect.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.