The Christmas season is a time to celebrate with family and reflect on our blessings. It is also a time to give back to our communities and help those in need. Unfortunately, for many Montana students, the holiday season is not always merry. As those who have ever served in classrooms know, December can bring stress, anxiety, and doubt for some children. Our 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 1 out of every 5 Montana high school students has seriously contemplated suicide. We can and must do better for our youth.
Reflecting on my 23 years of teaching in Billings, academics and education always led the way, but there is so much more in caring for and developing the whole child. Partnering with parents, working hand-in-hand with counselors, teachers, and school leaders, everyone in the school building is embracing the social and emotional well-being of our students. From the crossing guard to the lunch aids to the custodian and secretary, all are supporting the mental health of our students. A school represents not only a learning environment, but often emotional safety, support, warmth, and nutrition to a young person.
This is why I developed my Montana Hope initiative, which is the whole child approach to education. Promoting mental health allows students to reach their full academic potential. I appreciate the leadership of our legislature. Representative Lenz and Senator McClafferty have recently championed legislation which puts suicide prevention and response policies in schools, but also gives local communities flexibility in policy development. As a positive first step, I have initiated the development of the Montana Suicide Prevention and Response Rulemaking Committee this month. The purpose of this committee is to recommend policies aimed at ensuring schools are providing mental health resources to their students.
We must all possess the courage to have open dialogue about mental health and suicide prevention for our youth. This involves community conversations, because supporting students goes beyond the school building. Please join me in starting this conversation in your communities so that we can give all Montana’s students the gift of hope this Christmas season.
Elsie Arntzen is Montana's superintendent of public instruction.