Partnership helps mental health services for 150 MT schools

Many small, rural and tribal schools in Montana will benefit from improved access to basic mental health services through a partnership made possible by a federal grant.

The partnership between the Western Montana Professional Learning Collaborativea non-profit organization that provides professional development opportunities for educators, and the Montana Small School Alliancewill also provide rural schools with violence prevention tools.

“There is a strong and growing need to improve and provide equitable school mental health support and other resources to prevent school violence and rural mental health issues,” said said Jessica Johnson of the Western Montana Professional Learning Collaborative.

According to the results of the 2021 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, about 22% of high school students surveyed had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, and nearly 42% of students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more. In addition, approximately 8.9% of students carried a weapon on them for more than one day during the past 12 months, apart from using the weapon for hunting or sport.

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Nearly 17,000 students from 98 percent of Montana schools between grades 7 and 12 participated in the survey conducted by the Office of Public Instruction during the 2020-2021 school year.

“Students are trained to run, hide or fight for their lives in school,” Johnson said. “We need to focus on an ongoing dialogue about improving student well-being with a greater focus on prevention. With this federal grant, we will seek to address the critical needs of rural, tribal, and border schools to better support our students.

Of the 150 school districts that are members of the Montana Small Schools Alliance, 120 of them operate without a single certified school counselor, according to a description of the project on the Justice Support Office website. As a result, one of the teachers in the school must undergo additional training in school guidance to fulfill these functions in addition to their responsibilities as an educator.

The $999,999 grant was awarded to nonprofit organizations in the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s STOP School Violence Program through the Department of Justice. Through the grant, the partnership aims to serve nearly 150 Montana schools through mental health assessments, counseling services, and enhanced content and curriculum.

The grant will also fund e-therapy assessments and treatment, direct access to CrisisTextLine, a mental health texting service, and fund a full-time credentialed school counselor to serve as a mental health resource navigator.

These additional resources for rural schools, which often struggle to hire counseling staff or contract services for student mental health issues, come at a time when many districts across the state are facing new challenges in providing their own programs.

Recent legislative changes Montana’s School and Community Treatment Programs (CSCT) have caused administrative headaches for many school districts and concerns about funding for these services in the future. CSCT programs connect students with severe mental health needs with them during the school day, in their homes or in the community.

The changes moved the curriculum from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to the Office of Public Instruction and affected how school districts pay for their third party services. Previously, districts could pay their share by contributing classroom space or laptops. With the new rules, they have to pay in cash.

When the program was moved, lawmakers gave OPI $2.2 million to fill the schools’ funding gap, which expired at the end of December 2021.

Prior to the legislative changes, 84 districts contracted mental health services through CSCT programs. Only 10 school districts signed agreements to receive reimbursement from the federal government for their CSCT programs days before the February deadline.

Due to the changes, some districts chose to reduce their CSCT offerings or eliminate their programs altogether and instead transferred students to outpatient therapy.

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