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Mental-health grant targets reservation students

The Daily Inter Lake - 8/24/2019

Aug. 24--Print Article

Social, emotional and physical wellbeing are interlinked to a person's overall wellness.

Ronan, Rocky Boy, Box Elder and St. Ignatius high schools will emphasize the role mental health plays in holistic wellbeing by developing awareness campaigns as part of a $1.28 million Children, Youth, Families at Risk grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture'sNational Institute of Food and Agriculture program.

The grant, which will be dispersed over five years, was awarded to the Montana State University Extension and Stone Child College in Box Elder.

As part of the grant funding, freshmen will participate in Youth Aware of Mental Health training in September. The Youth Aware of Mental Health program teaches youth about mental health and suicide prevention by helping them develop problem-solving, coping and emotional skills through various methods such as discussions and role play.

The training is just one component of educational programming the grant will fund.

The grant program falls under the umbrella of the 4-H Positive Youth Development program, which teaches youth how to engage with their communities, schools and peers in positive and productive ways.

Students will use technology to create tools to raise mental-health awareness beyond the school walls and into their communities. Students and 4-H groups will work to develop logos, phone apps, e-magazines and laser-cut tokens as ways to engage with peers and various businesses and organizations.

"One of the problems with mental health is that people don't want to talk about it," said Montana State University Extension associate specialist and project co-director Stephanie Davison. "There's a huge stigma."

The idea for the tokens, for example, is to give students an avenue to start a conversation on mental health.

"The tokens are a tangible item for kids to present to community organizations and businesses," Davison said, serving as a springboard to transition into the important topic.

"The primary and most important aspect of this project is the connection between youth and the community," she said.

Brenda Richey, Flathead Reservation Extension agent and Youth Aware of Mental Health instructor, spoke to the importance of breaking mental-health stigmas.

"I believe that when we empower our youth with fact-based knowledge and give them a platform to share that knowledge with their peers, then we will start to see a decline in youth depression and suicides," said Richey, who serves as the project site director for Ronan and St. Ignatius high schools.

In writing the grant and selecting sites for the program, Davison looked at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services' 2016 Suicide Mortality Review Team report. According to the report, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-old Montanans with Native American/Alaska Native youth having the highest rate of suicide in the state in this age group.

"In Hill County, the county in which Rocky Boy's reservation is located, the suicide rate per 100,000 residents is 13.8. The Confederated Salish, Pend d'Oreille and Kootenai Tribes overlap four counties: Lake, Missoula, Sanders, and Flathead.

In Lake County, where Ronan and St. Ignatius high schools are located, the rate is 19.9. These counties also have a large percentage of Native Americans who are at the greatest risk. Specifically, Lake and Hill counties were among the top five counties in Montana with the highest number of suicides by Native Americans," Davison noted in her grant application narrative.

"Sixty-nine percent of people who completed suicide in Montana in 2014 were depressed and 7 percent experienced anxiety. These statistics point to the need for programs that educate people not only about suicide prevention, but also about how to cope with common stressors. The intention of the proposed program is not to decrease the occurrence of mental health diagnoses or suicide attempts/completions (although it is hoped that it will), but to increase awareness about mental health issues and to create a culture in which social and emotional problems are not stigmatized or minimized, in which stress is normalized and people are supported," she continued.

Ronan Principal Kevin Kenelty said the grant allows its high school to continue the Youth Aware of Mental Health training with freshmen for the third year. This year, he anticipates 120 students to receive training.

"It was a need we were seeing a lot of," Kenelty said in adding mental-health education to general health education.

Anecdotally, Kenelty said students have come to staff reach out about dealing with depression themselves, or on behalf of a friend.

"Since training and talking about that mental-health piece they're much more open to coming to somebody and saying they're not feeling well, or having other students come in and talk for them," Kenelty said.

The interactive piece of the program is a way for students to have ownership.

"Student involvement is the absolute best way to get buy-in. We can tell them all we want, but if their peers are talking to them -- I think they get a lot more out of it," Kenelty said.

"It's teens helping teens," Davison said. "They're driving this."

If you are in crisis and want help, call the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255 or text "MT" to 741 741.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or

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