Education is meant to nurture and prepare students for life after graduation, whatever that next step may be. Our students and educators face many challenges, but mental health stands out among them. It is no secret that Montana leads the nation in teenage and childhood suicide.

We can best nurture and prepare our students for their futures if we give them the tools to help themselves. The Youth Aware of Mental Health Program (YAM) helps Montana students recognize and talk about mental health issues in their lives. YAM is a research-based initiative brought to Montana by MSU’s Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery (CMHRR). High school students enrolled in the program take a five-hour course exploring mental health issues, how to recognize them in themselves and others, and what to do about it.

In a study of 10 European countries using the YAM program, it was proven that YAM can prevent suicidal behavior. The study shows 55% fewer new cases of suicide attempts and students reported 50% fewer suicidal thoughts when compared to the control group. Students who took the course said mental health education was important and helpful.

Just before Thanksgiving, I met with other legislators on the Education Interim Committee and we heard from YAM personnel and a student that had participated in the program. We also heard from Matt Kuntz, the executive director of CMHRR which provides support for YAM. Together, we are working with the Office of Public Instruction to help support this program and others with suicide prevention grant funding.

YAM is being offered to our educators throughout Montana. This “trauma-informed” approach allows teachers to connect with students and their individual needs. The result is classrooms built on mutual respect where students can focus on their studies rather than trying desperately to be understood.

YAM can only address one side of the issue. The more students are aware of the resources for mental health concerns, urgent or otherwise, the better. But this program alone cannot solve the mental health crisis. Our educators, of whom we already ask so much, must be prepared to nurture their students wholly.

During the 2015 Legislative session, House Bill 374 was passed. The bill requires the Office of Public Instruction to develop suicide awareness and prevention training materials for school district employees. The training is available to all educators of a school district. Every five years, teachers must recertify in a two-hour course either online or face-to-face.

Our dedicated educators are on the front lines of defense against these tragedies that rock our communities. These trainings give educators the tools they need to help their students. We must continue to support programs like suicide prevention training and YAM to stop this tragic epidemic.

Sen. Edie McClafferty (D-Butte) represents Senate District 38. She can be reached at Edie.McClafferty@gmail.com.

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