Montana Expands Mental Health Screening for Students

Montana, a state with one of the highest suicide rates, introduces mental health and substance abuse issues screening for middle and high school students.

Governor Greg Gianforte and the director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), Charlie Brereton, announced a $2.1 million investment for screening last week. The money will be allocated from the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Grant, funded by the federal COVID-19 relief aid program.

"No young Montanan struggling with their mental health is alone," says Governor Gianforte. "By investing in voluntary universal mental health screening in our schools, we can get young Montanans the help they need, reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, and build a stronger, healthier Montana."

The investment will expand Rural Behavioral Health Institute's program Screening Linked to Care, which allowed the screening of over 1,000 students in Montana between 2020 to 2022. The program is expected to cover up to 40 percent of all middle and high school students nationwide. Thirty-seven schools have committed to implementing the program this spring.

For those identified with high suicide-risk, the program will offer same-day mental health care, including an evaluation of safety and mental health status, brief intervention, and referral to appropriate care.

Montana has the third highest rate of suicide in the country, according to a 2020 National Vital Statistics Report, with higher rates only in Wyoming and Alaska. The suicide rate of youth aged 11 to 17 in the state is 11.9 per 100,000, more than double the national average.

In 2020, about one in 10 Montana students (10.2%) in grades 9th through 12th had made a suicide attempt. The number is even higher among 7th and 8th graders, where about one in seven (13.5%) had attempted to take their own life.

A 2021 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed 41% of high school students reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness (depression) over the last year, a 30-year record high. At the same time, the usage of substances, such as tobacco products, alcohol, and drugs, has been decreasing.

John Crimmins, Ph.D., a consultant psychotherapist based in Ireland with over 25 years of clinical experience, says that one of these signs may show that a teenager is suicidal:

  • Talks about suicide or death
  • Seeks access to lethal things such as guns, knives, razors, etc.
  • Is moody, sad, and withdrawn from people they are normally close to
  • Gets very anxious or agitated
  • Engages in self-destructive, risky behavior
  • Uses alcohol or drugs

If you suspect your child may be suicidal, it is important to ask them directly and maintain a conversation in a non-judgmental and non-threatening way.

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