Montana expands training for rural mental health counselors


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Photo illustration by David Reese/Montana Living

Montana is a vast state, with communities isolated from each other.

That can lead to mental health issues for people living in isolation. But a new program at Montana State University and University of Montana seeks to train additional mental health counselors for Montana's rural communities.

MSU and its partners have received a $4.1 million grant for a five-year project designed to train school and mental health counselors to work in rural Montana.

The grant, from the U.S. Department of Education, will be used for the Rural Mental Health Preparation Practice Pathway Partnership. The project expands on a previous and similar grant-funded project MSU and its partners began in 2019.

Rebecca Koltz is the grant’s principal investigator and a counseling professor in the MSU Department of Health and Human Development in the College of Education, Health and Human Development. MSU’s partners on the grant include the University of Montana’s Department of Counseling and the Montana Office of Public Instruction. Additional partners include the Montana School Counselor Association, the Montana Small Schools Alliance and MSU Extension.

The new project will prepare people enrolled in graduate-level counseling and counselor education programs at MSU and University of Montana to provide high-quality counseling services in rural, remote and tribal settings in Montana. Over the project’s five years, organizers expect to produce 60 school and mental health counselors, with half coming from MSU and half from UM, according to MSU.

The grant will also support the supervisors who are overseeing the students’ work at the rural sites.

Downey noted that program participants will have opportunities to gain experience in rural settings. The degree programs take two years; in their first semester, students participate in a community-focused rural life orientation, and in the second semester they participate in a rural practicum, or a supervised on-the-job experience in an approved setting.

Then, in their second year, students participating in the Rural Mental Health Preparation Practice Pathway Partnership will complete their internship in a rural community, with each student providing at least 600 hours of service.

A unique element of the new Rural Mental Health Preparation Practice Pathway Partnership is that it will also focus on building a network of people who will support one another in the profession.“We’re trying to facilitate and bring together a network of people across the state who care about rural youth mental health,” Koltz said.

The focus on partnerships is in response to needs identified through work on the previous project, Elliott said. “Through the course of the previous project, it became apparent that in order to meet the profound mental health needs across the vast state of Montana, more professional partnerships are needed to reduce the shortage of youth mental health practitioners and deliver needed services,” Elliott said.

Isolation has been identified as a reason that counselors leave rural settings, Elliott said.

“It’s actually pretty easy to get students invested in working in rural environments once they start to realize the strengths and benefits of living in a small community, but not feeling like you have other people to talk to and connect with as you’re managing complex systems, small towns and dual relationships is a challenge.”

Tricia Seifert, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development, called the project an example of MSU’s land-grant mission in action.“This grant and the program it supports is yet another example of how faculty members realize the college’s vision to ‘transform lives and communities in the people’s interest’ every day,” she said.

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