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Hardin School District accepted in new program to address mental health

Billings Gazette - 1/19/2024

Jan. 18—The Hardin School District was recently accepted into a new program that aims to improve the mental and emotional health of students and staff.

Located just outside the Crow Reservation, the school district serves 1,750 students — 78% of whom are Indigenous — from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Created by the Jed Foundation and the School Superintendents Association, the "District Comprehensive Approach" is a new program that aims to address behavioral health needs within schools while bringing together school leaders nationwide to compare notes and share strategies.

In the three-year program, the Hardin School District will work with experts from the two organizations to identify needs and create and implement a plan of action at no cost to the district.

Superintendent Tobin Novasio told Lee Montana newspapers that because students in Hardin face unique challenges, he's glad the program allows each school to come up with custom solutions.

The town of Hardin is home to 4,664 people, 16% of whom live below poverty level. Big Horn County, which surrounds Hardin, has been called an epicenter for the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis, so children in the area, Novasio said, often display high levels of early childhood trauma.

"It's easy for our students to feel like the deck is stacked against them," he added. "We want to be sure we're giving them the tools to be resilient."

But getting help — whether through counseling or other behavioral health services — is challenging, too.

The current wait time to receive behavioral health services on the Crow Reservation is six months to one year.

In 2020 at the Crow Service Unit, there was one behavioral health provider for every 3,340 people served. By comparison, in Montana — a state that recently claimed the second-highest suicide rate in the country — there is one mental health provider for every 399 people.

Novasio said suicide rates are higher in rural areas than in urban ones. Students could theoretically travel 50 miles each way to Billings for mental health services. But a trip like that requires a reliable vehicle, money for gas, time away from school and maybe a parent to drive. There's also a stigma attached to receiving mental health services, and Novasio said it can be exaggerated in small towns, where people recognize your car is parked outside a therapist's office.

"We have rural challenges and then you factor in poverty." He said. "There's a whole challenge beyond what would happen if someone in Billings or Missoula (sought help) compared to someone in Colstrip or Jordan."

Schools under stress

As students face challenges outside the classroom, Novasio said his teachers are also under intense stress.

A severe teacher shortage means he's not always able to find substitutes. The schools don't have a psychiatrist, and Novasio said the district is "well below what the recommended ratios for social workers and school psychologists" are.

The district has started to bring in teachers who have less experience in the field, but Novasio said the district is still about 12 teachers short.

"If I had the right applicants, I could hire 12 people right now," he said. "I think schools are taking on more now than we ever have before."

Novasio has lost students to suicide and other mental health issues. He said improving mental health outcomes is imperative to providing a good education.

"If our kids don't feel safe, secure and loved, well they're never going to learn anything," he said. "We have to build that foundation. ... And in tribal communities, it's essential to build that trust."

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(c)2024 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)

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