Almost every mask — each made by a Montanan with a brain injury — on display at the Missoula County Courthouse comes with an explanation.
Some are bright, cheerful (one explanation: the butterfly means that it’s a nice day). Some are darker, streaked with blood-red paint (a man who was in a motorcycle accident).
The 20 masks will be up in the courthouse all of March, Brain Injury Awareness Month, for two reasons: to promote awareness of the fact that Montana shuffles between second and third in the nation in brain injury-related deaths, and to call attention to the fact that a statewide help line is losing funding.
“We have helped thousands of Montanans and their families that have been impacted by brain injury,” Montana Brain Injury Alliance Director John Bigart said in an email. “We may not be able to change the cancellation of the (Brain Injury Help Line) contract, but we can be a voice to show just how much cutting a help line that is devoted to helping brain injury survivors will hurt our state.”
The unmasking project plays on the idea of brain injuries as the “invisible injuries,” Bigart said, because people can look fine on the surface, but still be severely injured.
While Montana’s brain-injury-related deaths are in the top three in the nation, more than 30 Montanans sustain a brain injury every day and survive, he said.
Those survivors are the ones telling their stories through the unmasking project, which will tour the state throughout the year.
“There’s a story behind every mask and behind every mask there’s a person, a person that’s touched by brain injury,” Bigart said.
The Brain Injury Help Line has helped thousands of Montanans in its 12 years of service, Bigart said, with a range of questions for how they and their families live with brain injury.
Those injuries have become more relevant recently through CTE, a brain injury that has been linked to playing football, Bigart said, along with increasingly common concussion protocol in all sports.
The help line will lose its $100,000 state contract at the end of March, ending the service for the immediate future.
DPHHS funding for mental health targeted case management for adults and children will decrease by just shy of $1 million each year of the two-year budget. For targeted case management for people with developmental disabilities, the state is ending contracts with service providers.
The Brain Injury Alliance will go after grants and private funding to try and start it back up, Bigart said.
“These budget cuts may be necessary, but they are affecting much-needed services and ultimately hurting many of the people that we work with,” Bigart said. “It shows just how much we need to push brain injury awareness and prevention.”