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Montana State receives grant to expand statewide youth mental health program

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Posted at 2:39 PM, Dec 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-06 13:24:43-05

BOZEMAN — A program designed to enhance mental health awareness in youth will be more widely available in Montana thanks to a new grant awarded to the Center for Research on Rural Education, or CRRE, at Montana State University.

The three-year, $240,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will enable the program, called Youth Aware of Mental Health, or YAM, to be offered in more Montana communities, particularly in rural and tribal communities. In Montana, YAM is administered by MSU’s CRRE in collaboration with partners around the state, including MSU Extension.

The grant will fund a new project, Cultivating Youth Mental Health in Rural and Reservation Communities, which is designed to combat an “alarming” increase in mental health concerns and opioid misuse among rural and American Indian youth in Montana. The project will expand delivery of YAM to these youth through more MSU Extension faculty and community partners, according to Kelley Edwards, YAM program coordinator in the MSU CRRE.

The grant will help certify 10 new YAM instructors across Montana. Over the life of the grant, the CRRE aims to deliver YAM in at least 23 Montana rural and reservation schools and reach more than 3,000 students.

“Our ultimate goal is to expand this program to as many counties and schools as we possibly can,” Edwards said. “We want more resources and opportunities for education for all of our students in Montana.”

The five-hour program is spread over a minimum of three weeks. Led by trained instructors, YAM includes interactive talks, as well as three hours of role-playing and mental health referral resources for youth. The program teaches both mental health awareness and risk factors associated with suicide, as well as skills for dealing with adverse life events. An important component of YAM is that it is directly delivered to each youth, rather than to “gatekeepers,” or those people who frequently interact with youth, like teachers, school staff and community leaders, Edwards said. Other important components include building youth’s connectedness and empathy with their peers.

The core of the program consists of a preliminary discussion to teach students about mental health and to reduce the stigma surrounding it. This is followed by three student-driven role-play sessions that allow students to share their own stresses, while finding solutions to difficult situations and developing positive coping skills in a fun and nonthreatening manner. Topics that are covered include bullying, peer pressure, family stress, depression, anxiety and suicide.

“Particular attention is paid to how students can find a trusting adult to assist in getting help for themselves and others,” Edwards wrote. The final day of the program is devoted to review and to ensuring that students have a strong understanding of local, state and national resources that are available, should they or a friend need additional help.

YAM was first developed in Sweden, and more than 11,000 ninth-graders in 10 European countries participated in an initial study. Results showed that YAM helped reduce suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts by more than 50% compared to the control group. The findings were published in the journal Lancet in 2015.

Montana and Texas were the first states in the U.S. to deliver YAM — Montana in 2016 as part of a pilot study. In addition to positive outcomes on factors related to suicide, the pilot study showed the feasibility of implementing YAM in urban, rural and tribal schools. Since its start in 2016, YAM has been offered in nearly 40 Montana communities to approximately 12,500 Montana youth, Edwards said.

In the NIFA grant application, Edwards wrote that mental health disorders in adolescence are associated with an increased risk for opioid misuse, and experts have called for a comprehensive approach to mental health promotion that simultaneously addresses opioid misuse, overdose and suicide.

“YAM is an ideal response to this call because it is a mental health promotion program that allows adolescents to develop lifelong resilience skills shown to help young adults avoid high-risk behaviors that can lead to poor academic achievement, substance misuse, severe psychiatric conditions and suicide,” Edwards noted.

Edwards also shared that YAM is not just for students who are struggling.

“As a universal mental health promotion program, YAM can benefit all students, even those who are not struggling with mental health or opioid issues.”

Brian Kessler, principal at East Helena High School, said the program is addressing an important need.

“It is no secret in Montana that we are seeing an increased need to provide students with resources not only on how to care for their own mental health, but also how to help their classmates in times of need,” Kessler said. “YAM is one of the great opportunities we have currently to educate students on warning signs, begin to open up the lines of communication between students and adults, and hopefully save lives through this.”

Jayne Downey, director of the Center for Research on Rural Education, said the work is a perfect fit with the center’s mission of supporting rural schools and communities.

“ In the midst of growing mental health needs across our state, the staff of MSU’s CRRE is deeply committed to helping Montana’s students build mental health knowledge and skills so they can lead strong and healthy lives,” Downey said.