Steven Zieglowsky, a Stevensville school counselor, and Dee Hensley-Maclean, who's served with the Parent Teacher Association and has children who graduated from Hamilton High School, are on a committee that will advise Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen on suicide prevention programs in schools and the economic impact.
The Suicide Prevention and Response Negotiated Rulemaking Committee was formed in response to a bill approved by the Legislature to promote more awareness and suicide prevention in schools.
The panel has 16 members with expertise in education, business, suicide prevention and response, culturally relevant practices, and school finance. It includes school district trustees, K-12 school administrators, K-12 teachers and counselors, school business officials, parents and taxpayers.
The members represent diverse cultures and geographic locations. OPI and Board of Public Education staff also are on the committee.
“I am humbled to bring this highly qualified, diverse and passionate group of Montanans together to discuss how we can best promote positive mental health for all of our students,” Arntzen said. “Putting Montana students first through my Montana Hope initiative is my No. 1 priority.”
Zieglowsky serves 15 locations from Florence to Darby as a school counselor, is a clinical supervisor for the Comprehensive School and Community Treatment (CSCT) mental health program at the Bitterroot Valley Co-op and also works on a suicide prevention grant with OPI.
His goal in serving on the committee is to ensure positive results.
“I want to give my feedback about potential strategies that will lead to evidence-based outcomes and fewer suicide outcomes,” Zieglowsky said. “My intent in participating is that some suicide prevention articles have had a clear impact and some have not made measurable changes.”
Zieglowsky said the Montana Youth Risk Behavior Surveys that are completed by students are considered by educators and health professionals to determine health-risk behaviors of Montana youth.
The surveys were started by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1988 with a goal of identifying social problems, mortality and illness of youth.
“If you look at the annual percentage in Montana, every school has their own reports about kids thinking about suicide or attempting suicide — some of which were so serious they required medical intervention,” Zieglowsky said. “Completed suicides are a huge problem in Montana, but if the kids live through the attempts they may have ongoing health problems — like kidney damage.”
Being part of the OPI committee, Zieglowsky hopes to help to find ways to identify at-risk youth and be able to intervene on suicide attempts to reduce the impact on youth.
“It is an incredibly diverse committee with interesting stakeholders and different perspectives,” Zieglowsky said. “My thing is what is the best practice in terms of helping kids and what is feasible within a school system. There are some natural limitations based on a school setting.”
He said suicide is a historical problem.
“Montana has been in the top 5 percent for years and I know different groups have made good-hearted efforts to address the problem. But impacts are limited when budgets are tight,” he said. “I’m hoping to bring practices that will be most effective to the table.”
Zieglowsky works with Holly Mook at OPI.
“We are collaborating to make online classes for educators for suicide prevention,” he said. “It will be six hours, three different courses, looking at the related factors and what educators can do to promote suicide prevention efforts at their school.”
Content will be ready for rural access in January or February. The courses have outlines, video content, interactive tasks and quizzes to ensure educators get the information they need.
“It is exciting,” Zieglowsky said.
Hensley-Maclean’s children have graduated, but experienced grief when they were younger when kids they knew committed suicide.
“When you’re in a small community, the kids are affected by it. In 2014 Montana was No. 1 in suicides — that’s a concern as a parent,” she said. “There is so much that affects kids including social media and stuff from every direction.”
Hensley-Maclean said the committee is a step in the right direction.
“It would be great if we could solve the problem,” she said. “If you spoke to parents whose children committed suicide, they say they were blindsided. As a parent you don’t know the signs, it’s not talked about. The parents and school districts need information. Kids see the signs, if they know what the signs are.”
Hensley-Maclean said the topic of suicide has not been faced head-on and the OPI committee will address it directly.
“It’s happening and we need to address it,” she said. “We’ve got to get over mental health as an embarrassment. We’ve got to look at it and say teens get depressed and how as a parent do you navigate and how as a school do you help these kids.”
Hensley-Maclean said the committee is a step toward de-stigmatizing mental health.
“Mental health is just as important as physical health,” she said. “Research has shown there’s a direct link between the two.”
Maclean has been through PTA training at both the state and national levels.
“... When a school has a suicide, all the school counselors in the Valley come together and help that school,” she said. “The mental health professionals in the Valley get it and want to be helpful. I think this is a way to have more people understand and make a difference. It is hard and the school counselors get it and are supportive.”
The OPI committee met Dec. 20 in Helena and will continue to meet in the future. Once the committee finishes its work, the results will go to the Board of Public Education and Arntzen.
For more information, visit OPI Suicide Prevention and Awareness Resources online: opi.mt.gov/Educators/School-Climate-Student-Wellness/Suicide-Prevention.