Nearly one quarter of the high school students in Montana’s alternative education programs have attempted suicide within the past year, according to data reviewed in a new issue brief from the Montana Healthcare Foundation.
Alternative education programs in Montana’s public schools serve at-risk students—such as pregnant teens, students that are struggling academically, or those that have problems with mental illness or drug or alcohol use. The issue brief and an accompanying in-depth report examine the health issues facing these high-risk youth, and include some concerning statistics. For example, 60 percent of alternative school students report current alcohol use, more than 50 percent have symptoms of depression, and nearly 70 percent smoke.
Funding and staffing challenges are common for alternative schools. Some programs do not even employ teachers, but instead use para-professionals and computer-based learning. Staff in these programs often lack training that would allow them to more effectively address the health needs of this vulnerable group of students. Moreover, grants that might afford opportunities to better serve this population often actually exclude alternative schools because the programs may not meet the standard definition of a school for the purposes of grant eligibility.
The MHCF report concludes on a positive note, highlighting a number of important opportunities to better address these students’ needs. The Blackfeet Learning Academy, for example, is an alternative education program that provides therapeutic group counselling sessions. Project SUCCESS in Missoula employs an evidence-based substance abuse treatment program through a partnership with Montana Addiction Services. The Montana Behavioral Initiative trains schools to provide evidence-based in-school behavioral interventions for struggling students and might be an excellent resource for alternative education programs. Schools have the ability to bill insurance for mental health counselling, which could provide a sustainable source of funding to allow them to better meet the needs of these extraordinarily vulnerable students.
Investment in proven approaches by private foundations and government agencies has the potential to significantly improve these troubling health statistics.