Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
Most people have heard that mental and behavioral health struggles are increasing, especially for our youth. According to the 2019 North Dakota Youth Risk Behavior Survey (NDYRBS), 61.2 percent of high school students reported their mental health was not good on at least one day during the 30 days before the survey. And, the percentage of students who have seriously considered attempting suicide has increased from 12.4 percent in 2009 to 18.8 percent in 2019.
Reading those statistics can cause depression and/or anxiety in all of us. Fortunately, schools across North Dakota are being proactive and adopting solutions.
Robin Lang, North Dakota Department of Public Instruction assistant director of educational improvement and support, talked about several programs that are working in schools across the state.
“Richland County (Richland #44) and Wilton School District have been highlighted with their work in social emotional learning (SEL),” she said. “One thing Richland #44 does is partner with The Village and they bring in a behavior health partner.”
According to the report on this work, not only has this improved students’ access to counseling services, but it has enabled the counselors to support SEL implementation in the classroom. As is the case in Wilton, Richland #44’s staff have found that SEL has been a powerful tool in giving students the confidence to speak up and let staff know when something is troubling them.
“Rural schools don’t have the resources the larger districts have,” said Lang. “Telehealth options are also helping with more complex health needs in those areas.”
Another program that has seen great success is Sources of Strength. “This program is the gold seal of suicide prevention,” said Lang. “It is an international program that is research-based, and the best part is that it was created by someone from North Dakota, Mark LoMurray.”
Sources of Strength
Sources of Strength is an evidence-based suicide, bullying, and substance abuse prevention program initially designed for secondary schools. The program harnesses the power of peer leaders, specifically chosen students throughout school communities, and adult advisor mentors.
“When I worked at the Police Youth Bureau, I went to too many funerals,” said LoMurray. “I was doing a lot with suicide warning signs, and I felt we could do more. I talked to several thousand young people to come up with the wheel.”
“Unlike many prevention programs, Sources of Strength’s primary mission is to focus upstream—creating a culture of wellness that encourages all to focus on strengths in their lives as things that help when life gets tough,” said Natalie Couture, Sources of Strength program support for Central Regional Education Association. “Strengths are separated into eight categories: Family Support, Positive Friends, Mentors, Healthy Activities, Generosity, Spirituality, Physical Health, and Mental Health. The Sources of Strength program states that while we may be strong in only one or two areas of the “wheel of strengths,” we can’t use just one strength to help us through it all—we need multiple strengths to help us out.”
Abrianna Bennett-Boedicker, a peer leader in Max, talked about how she loves being a part of Sources of Strength. “When Sources of Strength came to our school, I was like ‘yay!’ I want to be a mental health counselor for kids when I grow up. Plus, it helps me get to know my peers.”
“Sources of Strength connects our school and makes people realize they are not alone in their struggles,” said Stephanie Bingham, another peer leader from Max.
“A lot of things can contribute to poor mental health,” said LoMurray. “Not getting enough sleep, no access to medical care, getting too stressed out. All of us are going to go through stuff, but if that stuff gets too big and lasts way too long, it starts messing with our lives. That is when you use the wheel – what can you strengthen (in the wheel) to get back into balance?”
“When things get tough for me, I use (the strengths of) family support\ and positive friends,” said Caroline Bodine, a peer leader in Velva. “It helps me to get an outside perspective on what is going on.”
“The pandemic caused a lot of stress for students,” said Makya Kostenko, another peer leader in Velva. Mental health is a really big issue and Sources of Strength is a way to relate your struggles with your peers and help others know how to cope in the process.”
Over 50 schools in North Dakota have been trained in Sources of Strength over the past 5 years. It started in high schools, went to the middle school level, and an elementary curriculum has been available for two years. Sources of Strength is currently piloting a curriculum for kindergarten,
“We are going to teach this to all students, you never know who is going to need it,” said Lori Ring, elementary program coordinator with Sources of Strength.
Some of the blame for the increase in anxiety and depression in our children could be put on social media and the internet. Kids can bully each other online, and just scrolling through an Instagram feed, looking at all of the ‘perfect’ photos, may cause feelings of inadequacy. Parents should monitor what their kids are doing online and there are many resources to help with this.
“Parents should know that predators are searching through apps and chat rooms for targets,” said Lang. “The Bismarck Police Youth Bureau has great resources for parents and helps to explain some of the things that are happening online.”
Another tool, the result of Senate Bill 2311 passed by the 2021 North Dakota Legislature, is Kognito. This free, online simulation-based learning program is for all private, public, and tribal school administrators, teachers, and support staff. It will help them enhance their knowledge of identifying signs of behavioral health concerns among students, learn effective conversation strategies, and find out how to refer to appropriate resources if necessary.
“Addressing mental health and suicide prevention by providing training for those who work with youth in public and nonpublic schools is a positive step,” said Rep. Cindy Schreiber-Beck, vice chairman of the House Education Committee. “This program could change lives. Hopefully schools will take advantage of this training opportunity.”
With all of these encouraging solutions, let’s hope the next NDYRBS gives us good news regarding student mental and behavioral health.