First mental health clinic in eastern Idaho celebrating 30 years of business this month

Business & Money

IDAHO FALLS – A local mental health clinic is celebrating its 30th year of business this month.

Joshua D. Smith and Associates at 540 3rd Street in Idaho Falls opened in the spring of 1991 and was the first clinic of its kind in eastern Idaho.

“Back in the 80s, the Department of Health and Welfare ran mental health services in the state of Idaho. They got overwhelmed and they decided to give it to the private sector,” Brenda Emery, part-owner and director of the clinic, tells

Company founders Dennis Smith, Steve Hansen and Kelly Keele were working for Health and Welfare at the time and helped write the Idaho Administrative Procedures Act, the laws that govern how mental health clinics operate in the state.

The clinic is named after Smith’s son, Joshua, who passed away in 1985 at age nine and was originally located at 2052 1st Street next to Valley Office Systems. (A separate organization called the Joshua D. Smith Foundation was formed in 1986 to help people with developmental disabilities).

joshua d smith ribbon cutting
From left: Steve Hansen, unknown city councilman, Dennis Smith and Kelly Keele during the ribbon cutting of Joshua D. Smith and Associates in 1991 at 2052 1st Street. | Courtesy Brenda Emery

Thousands of clients with a variety of diagnosed mental illnesses have benefitted from the services offered at Joshua D. Smith and Associates over the years. Among the services available is community-based rehab, where workers take clients into the community to do activities and errands.

“For a mentally ill person, going to a grocery store is a feat, especially those with anxiety,” Emery says. “My favorite story is of a client who was on food stamps, but he was using them up by the middle of the month and he’d go hungry the rest of the month.”

Emery says this client would shop at convenience stores because the size and the number of people at the grocery store triggered his anxiety. Food prices at convenience stores are expensive and that’s what was causing him to run out of money so early in the month.

Community-based rehab helped provide him with the skills to enter a grocery store without feeling overwhelmed, she says.

Other services include case management, which helps track medical issues for clients to link them with doctors who can provide the best care.

About five years ago, the clinic started offering peer support services. This is a program administered to clients by people who have learned to cope with their own mental illnesses or addictions.

“That’s been very successful in the last few years. That’s a huge service that’s going on in the state,” says Emery.

The clinic also provides mental health services for veterans.

Seeing clients improve and become part of the community is the most rewarding part of running the clinic for Emery and Smith. Emery recalls a client they helped about 15 years ago who used to roam the streets of Idaho Falls and sit in restaurants and stare at customers.

“He’d get kicked out and go to another restaurant,” Emery says. “He was actively in psychosis most of the time (and didn’t have any friends or family who supported him).”

A worker at the clinic really connected with him and over time, he decided to get a job at a local restaurant. Emery says he works there to this day and is a successful member of the community who manages his money and has good relationships with people.

“He actually rides his bike to work every day, even in the wintertime. He’s a very happy, successful man,” she says. “It’s a great story.”

joshua d smith current
Joshua D. Smith and Associates current location at 540 3rd Street in Idaho Falls. | Rett Nelson,

Housing shortage, rising number of cases and other challenges

One of the clinic’s biggest challenges right now, according to Emery, is providing community housing for clients receiving long-term care. A housing shortage in Idaho Falls makes that a difficult task, she says.

Another ongoing challenge for the clinic is helping people overcome the stigma of mental health therapy.

“People are starting to realize it’s a widespread issue that doesn’t just affect people who’ve been on drugs and alcohol,” Smith says.

Emery says the advent of Youtube and social media has contributed to a rise in mental health cases in the last several years. It’s a conversation that reached its peak at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year and Emery says they’re just now starting to see a surge in patients because of it.

RELATED | COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact Idahoans’ mental health

“As soon as we heard they were shutting everything down, we said ‘This is not going to end well,'” Emery says. “One of the things we teach (patients) is to limit isolation as much as possible. That actually makes things worse. We’re now starting to see the after-effects of that.”

Emery says many people are “living in fear” and “walking on eggshells” about potential new crises that could happen next. She says COVID-19 will have a long-term impact that will likely last several years.

In the wake of the school shooting at Rigby Middle School, city officials have been working to provide funding to offer counseling and other mental health services for those who were impacted. Smith says the trauma of that event is real and it’s a mistake to suggest that it’s victimizing people to offer mental health services.

RELATED | Despite tremendous response to Rigby school shooting, victim advocates say impact could be long-lasting

“The people who say ‘You’re making it worse for them (by offering mental health services)’ are the people who really weren’t there,” he says. “To just keep tucking it down and say ‘I’m ok’ — At some point in your life, it’s going to erupt. A lot of times, that’s how we get the shooters. It’ll come out that this sixth-grader has gone through a bunch of stuff that hadn’t been addressed.”

What’s next

Over the years, Joshua D. Smith and Associates has grown to include a second location in Pocatello. Smith says mental health services in Idaho are now managed by a company called Optum Idaho and they’re working to provide prevocational services in the near future.

“We plan on being an active participant and a major factor in the community to continue to provide these services,” Smith says.

Emery and the staff are planning a 30th-anniversary celebration for the community. The specifics are still being worked out.

Emery and the rest of the team enjoy working with patients and look forward to meeting new clients as they continue to serve people in the community.

“We’re busy and I imagine it’s because of the environment we find ourselves in. The world itself feels very unsafe and so it seems that has increased our numbers and therefore, we are always looking for awesome people to come work for us,” Emery says.

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