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Depression Among Students Growing, Educators Say Behavior Game Will Help

The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows nearly a quarter of high schoolers in Montana seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months.
2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey
Montana Office of Public Instruction
The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows nearly a quarter of high schoolers in Montana seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months.

Ten percent of Montana high school students say they’ve attempted suicide in the past year, according to a statewide survey released last month. The percentage of Montana highschoolers who report being depressed is at a 20 year high.

That’s according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of state high school students.

The survey of students is done across the country and it was first used in Montana to track student health and behavior in the early 1990s.

It’s given every-other-year to high school students and asks questions about their physcial activity, how safe they feel in school, if they use drugs, have sex, eat vegitables and other topics.

For decades, Montana officals have collected data showing suicide rates here are higher than the national average.

But only recently did the survey start showing how suicide is impacting homeless students.

“The risks compared to homeless students compared to other students are significantly higher,”says Heather Denny, state coordinator for homeless education.

In 2017, Denny says Montana started asking more specific questions about homelessness. The results were discouraging.

“In the 2017 survery, 25 percent of homeless students attempted suicide. And in the 2019 survey, 35 percent of homeless students are saying they’ve attempted suicide,” Denny says.

The collection of this data is new and difficult to draw conclusions from.

Denny says she doesn’t know why there was growth in reported homeless student suicide over the last two years, if it’s a temeorary spike or a trend.

“I wish I could, because then I could figure out how to address it,” Denny says.

The number of reported homeless students in all Montana public schools has increased each of the last three years. There are more than 4,000 reported homeless students across the state.

More than 500 of those students are in the Missoula County school district, where Colleen McGuire works with homeless students and families.

She says there’s a game that more teachers are starting to use in classrooms that tries to improve student mental health.

While it’s designed for all students, McGuire says the PAX Good Behavior Game could also provide an important predictable rhythm for homeless students in the classroom.

“And that’s one of the things that happens to children when they go homeless. The predictability of their lifestyle has changed. They’ve gotten used to being able to go home to a parent, or a significant other, a caregiver and when they go homeless that is lost. So the predictability of their lives kind of gets shattered. It’s pretty terrifying, particularly for a young child, not knowing what home is going to be like when they get there,” says McGuire.

The developers of the PAX Good Behavior Game say it’s designed to help teachers make the classroom a place that can encourage good mental health. The state announced earlier this month funding to expand the PAX game to more schools across the state.

One school district seeing positive results is Billings.

It’s not a subject but a program that uses research-based strategies focused on creating a classroom climate that facilitates peacefulness, productivity, teamwork and encourages resiliency that will continue over a lifetime. The task is to reduce mental illness, substance abuse and suicide in Montana’s youth.

Karissa Gordon and her second grade students at Ponderosa School hashed out the specifics of PAX learning environment at the beginning of the year. Together they decided the rules for a peaceful, productive classroom, looking at what is good behavior and bad.

“From there it empowered them to be accountable for their own actions. It’s not me putting something on them. It’s us working collaboratively as a team to achieve this peaceful, productive, positive health environment so they can truly thrive,” Gordon says.

Two of her students, Falecia and Elijah, give examples of a disruption or bad behavior.

“When you get a paper from a teacher and then you just grab it out of their hands and just start ripping it from their hands," Felecia says.

"If you walk up to a friend and punch them in the face with something,” adds Elijah.

In PAX vernacular these are called "spleems." It’s a made up word but it draws a kid’s attention in a non-disruptive way. Gordon challenges anyone to say spleem and not smile. That’s important since the kids take cues visually.

“When I am trying to redirect a child, having a smile on my face goes a long ways in keeping that relationship intact but still addressing the behavior at hand, as, "Hey, we need to try this again because this is not keeping PAX in our classroom,'” Gordon says.

When the students keep the spleems to a minimum during a lesson, there are rewards, like having the opportunity to giggle or laugh out loud for 10 seconds.

There are other rewards that are favorites with Elijah and Falecia.

“Those prize when we get to take turns dancing is someone chooses you walking backwards in the hallway,” Felcia says.

This is Gordon’s second year using PAX the Good Behavior Game in her classroom and she is a strong advocate. She says she’s installing these values in herself as she does in her students.

“This is something that personally I have seen great results in my classroom for very limited extra time and effort. It is really just that authentic desire to show kids that they are worthy of time, they are worthy of people giving them respect that can only translate into better future and ripple effect in our community,” Gordon says.

All 22 elementary schools in Billings have PAX-trained teachers. Eighty-five percent of Karissa Gordon’s fellow teachers at Ponderosa School have been trained in PAX.

PAX Good Behavior Game started last school year as a pilot project in about 20 schools in Montana. It was funded through state legislation calling on Montana health officails to create a program addressing the high rate of suicide among kids in the state.

Earlier this month, after reviewing the outcomes of the pilot, the University of Montana Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development called PAX Good Behavior Game a success.

Citing the federal Centers’ for Disease Control and Prevention, the UM report said, “PAX is one of the few universal prevention programs to have proven positive impact on children’s mental health.”

In the study of Montana classrooms using the game, one of the largest changes seen was the number of students who tease their classmates. The UM report says through the pilot program that number decreased by eight percent.

The governor’s office says the federal grant received by the state will allow more than a thousand teachers in around 30 towns to receive training in PAX Good Behavior Game this fall.

Karl Rosston, Montana’s suicide prevention coordinator, says the PAX game can help all students in Montana with behavioral health issues. He also says the higher suicide rate among homeless students compaired to non-homeless students, mentioned earlier, is expected, given those kids often lack access to family support and health care.

While new data show just how much homeless students are at risk for depression and suicide, Rosston says the problem is growing among kids statewide.

“We are seeing a trend up,” Rosston says.

Rosston says he’d like to see depression assessments in schools across Montana.

“The average age of onset for depression is 15. For anxiety it’s age 11. But only about 10 percent of the population nationally, who meet the requirement for depression get treatment. And if they do get treatment, it’s usually not until their early thirties,” Rosston says.

School districts are independent and even if the state develops tools targeting suicide prevention, Rosston says it’s up to individual districts whether to use them.

A bill in the 2019 legislative session creating a pilot program for an optional screening in public schools failed to pass. Some argued it was government overreach and the policy was not detailed enough.

If you or somone you know is in crisis, the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, or can be reached by texting MT to 741 741

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.
Corin Cates-Carney is the Flathead Valley reporter for MTPR.