A program designed to address mental health awareness is coming to four high schools on the Flathead and the Rocky Boys Reservations this school year. It’s part of a co-institutional million-dollar grant between Montana State University Extension and Stone Child College.
Principal Kevin Kenelty said Ronan High School has been spared of suicides in recent years, but that some students still struggle with depression. He said every month, about three or four kids visit the school counselor.
“They say that they’re had suicidal thoughts,” Kenelty said. “It may have not gone any further than that but there are thoughts of that, there are thoughts of depression.”
He said the fact that kids are reaching out for help is a win. He partially attributes that to the work Montana State University has already done at the school getting kids to talk about mental health. For the past two years, each freshman class at Ronan High School has received training in how to cope with stress and crisis.
“We are tending to see kids who are more open to saying, 'I’m not feeling great, can I go talk to the counselor?'” Kenelty said.
So he’s excited to ramp up what mental health support students already have.
This fall, freshmen at Rocky Boy, Box Elder, Ronan and St. Ignatius High Schools will get training in how to deal with depression.
The $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will also fund technology clubs, where students will design apps and e-magazine content about mental health.
St. Ignatius Principal Shawn Hendrickson said this program comes at a needed time for the community.
“Over the last three years there’s been a lot of suicides in our valley,” Hendrickson said.
He said the Flathead Valley is such a tight-knit community that one suicide can affect everyone.
“People are related, have families and live in multiple communities,” Hendrickson said. “Kids grow up playing sports with kids in other towns. So when something happens, it affects everybody.”
Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation. Native Americans account for the highest demographic within the state.
Between Lake and Flathead Counties, seven Native Americans died of suicide between 2014 and 2016. That’s according to data from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services’ 2016 report on suicide .
Like Principal Kenelty, Principal Hendrickson said there haven’t been any recent suicides at his school. This program is about making sure that stays the case.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.