Helena-area Democracy Project member Joel Goyette appears before the House Education Committee March 27 in support of House Bill 875. Goyette was one of 17 Helena teenagers who crafted the bill, which sought to establish a grant program for student-led school mental health initiatives but was tabled by lawmakers last week.

For James Kampen, public education is long overdue for an update in how it deals with mental health. The junior at Helena High School sees the demand reflected in many of the people around him: friends, family, even himself. It’s an issue that’s affecting his entire generation, he said, and one that requires new approaches, new materials and new ways of thinking.

“It just isn’t changing,” Kampen told Montana Free Press in a recent interview. “The videos they’re showing in our classrooms of mental health education are usually older than I am, and I think that really needs to change. Our generation is updating almost everything, and so I think this was the next thing to tackle.”

Kampen is one of 17 teenagers in the Helena area who recently took their push for change to the policymaking arena. As part of the Democracy Project — an initiative funded by Humanities Montana and spearheaded by public libraries in 13 Montana communities — Kampen and his cohorts worked with the Legislative Services Division to craft their own bill for introduction in the 2023 session. The result was House Bill 875, a proposed pilot program offering school districts grants of at least $10,000 to fund activities that help decrease anxiety, stress and mental illness across the student population and reduce incidents of bullying, substance abuse and self-harm.

Joel Goyette, a Democracy Project member and senior at the Helena College high school diploma completion program Access to Success, said the primary goal in shaping HB 875 was to foster more student and community involvement in mental health efforts in schools and create a more supportive, connected educational environment. While more individualized interventions such as personal sessions with a school counselor can help, Goyette said that a stronger sense of community within a school is also critical for the mental well-being and, by extension, academic success of Montana youth.

“It’s definitely super important because it kind of shapes how a student does academically,” Goyette told MTFP. “If they have major depression or anxiety or any other mental illnesses and they’re in an environment where those are a big roadblock for them and makes it so they can’t operate normally, I think it’s not a reach to say that their grades will go down with their mental health.”

Goyette and several other students from their Helena area group shared the concerns behind their proposal with lawmakers on the House Education Committee last week. And Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, who agreed to carry HB 875 on their behalf, added that the bill was an important step in strengthening the role of student voices in conversations about local mental health concerns. Lobbyist Jasmine Krotkov also voiced support on behalf of the Montana Farmers Union, which, Krotkov said, viewed HB 875 as “an opportunity for rural schools to determine for themselves what they need in mental health promotion and to get the funds to implement their ideas.” Representatives from Montana’s major public education associations also testified as proponents.

Members of the committee applauded the students’ initiative in getting involved with the policymaking process. But prior to taking a vote Wednesday, Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, was candidly skeptical that HB 875’s $250,000 funding request would gain traction elsewhere in the Legislature.

“I think [House] Appropriations will kill this,” Reksten said.

“I think you’re right,” Romano replied. 

Rep. Mark Thane, D-Missoula agreed the bill would likely get a “haircut,” but added that he’d like to see the committee get a chance to discuss the issue. HB 875 failed on a 6-7 vote, with two Republicans clarifying that their no votes were reluctant ones. A substitute motion to table the bill was approved 12-1.

Romano said in an interview Friday that she’d love to see the teen-crafted bill come off the table, describing it as “the highlight of my session.” Barring that, she hopes to honor the group’s broader goal by finding space for an amendment in other legislation that grants students a voice in local mental health programs.

“As lawmakers and even teachers and myself as a parent, I think sometimes when we think about mental health, we go worst-case scenario. We think, ‘Well, what are the things that need to be in place to address suicide?’” Romano said. “We don’t think about just the little everyday things that make a difference. The students in the group, they were very vulnerable and honest, and some of them talked about their own struggles with anxiety or depression. They really talked about things in their school culture that would make a difference.”

As Romano looks for opportunities to carry forward the spirit behind HB 875, the broader conversation around mental health support for K-12 students continues. One of the primary bills tackling the issue — House Bill 822 — cleared its initial House floor vote Friday with only eight Republicans opposing. 

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, began as an effort to reverse a controversial 2021 change to the Comprehensive School and Community Treatment (CSCT) program, returning oversight to the Department of Public Health and Human Services. The Office of Public Instruction assumed a new role last year in administering CSCT, a Medicaid-backed program that stations mental health professionals in schools to support students with serious emotional disturbances. But the change sparked widespread criticism from educators and mental health providers, some of whom linked it to the quiet departure from Montana of one of the state’s largest CSCT providers.

Keenan noted on the House floor that HB 822 has evolved to tackle more than just CSCT. The bill includes requirements for parental notification and involvement in in-school behavioral health services. It also directs the state to establish new procedures for measuring and reporting the outcomes of those services to determine how participation impacts a student’s academic success and avoidance of behavioral problems.

Several Republicans resisted HB 822, with Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, arguing that Montana parents are opposed to schools being “used as mental health clinics” or to counselors potentially promoting conversations about human sexuality that “we don’t agree with.” Keenan pushed back on that characterization, noting that during a multi-day youth mental health screening conducted in 18 school districts last fall, 221 students out of 2,483 surveyed were at “high risk of suicide” and were afforded access to same-day care.

“I’ve done a lot of work on this,” Keenan said. “To try to deny that mental health is not in the schools and isn’t an issue that needs to be dealt with — we’re not talking about prescriptions, we’re not talking about boogeymans where teachers are giving kids ritalin or anything like that. This is the beginning of a program that is needed in the schools.”

Romano also drew MTFP’s attention to House Bill 334, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston. The proposal would allow K-12 students to miss school for mental health reasons, and received strong bipartisan support in the House. However, HB 334 was amended in the Senate to require a medical diagnosis for mental health related absences — a change that eight Senate Republicans and all 16 Senate Democrats unsuccessfully opposed. A majority of House members rejected the amended version of HB 334, meaning it will now pass to a conference committee for resolution.

Whether HB 875 succeeds in inspiring alterations to bills still alive in the process, it has had a lasting impact on the students behind it. Kampen said he was already interested in studying political science when he enters college. Getting a first-hand look at the nuances of how state policy is crafted, he continued, was a lesson “they don’t teach you in school.”

“I didn’t know there were so many levels that you had to pass through in order to enact a bill,” Kampen said. “The whole session is very complicated. I didn’t know you had sent that many emails out to people. I sincerely thought it was a lot more simple, but it turned out to be a lot more complicated.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...