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There is an epidemic in our nation’s schools that can no longer be dismissed. Violence once contained to urban areas is finding its way into our rural towns. This epidemic is bullying.

In 2010, 4.8 million students were affected by bullying. That is 1 in 7 students. Not shocking enough? Let the following statistics sink in:

• 56 percent of students report witnessing bullying taking place at school.

• 1 in 20 students has seen a student with a gun at school.

• 71 percent of students report that bullying is an ongoing problem.

• 90 percent of fourth- through eighth-graders report being a victim of some form of bullying.

In addition to bullying, recent generations have coined the term “bullycide,” which is suicide as a result of bullying. It has become such a problem that there was actually a need to create a new word to describe it. Suicide rates among adolescents have grown more than 50 percent in the past 30 years and a recent study performed by the Yale School of Medicine shows a strong link between bullying and adolescent suicide.

As if these two forms of violence were not enough, since 1992 there have been 387 school shootings in the United States. You may say, “This is only a problem in inner cities. We are safe from that here in Montana.” Tell that to the families impacted by the most recent school shooting covered by the media in Connecticut. Are you willing to gamble with our children’s lives anymore? Identifying and treating mental health issues in our schools seems to be a no-brainer.

The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act of 2013 was approved by the U.S. Senate as an amendment to the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013. The primary purpose of this bill is to increase the use of behavioral interventions in order to improve students’ academic environment by reducing disciplinary issues in schools and providing a safe environment for learning. Passage of this bipartisan bill will provide technical assistance and training to educational agencies for the implementation of various mental health interventions, as well as the updating of crisis management plans. However, it is predicted there is only a 42 percent chance that this bill will be enacted.

Remember the “good old days” when every school had a trained and licensed counselor? This is not the case anymore. Mental health professionals are rotated among schools, if available at all. These responsibilities now fall on administrative staff and teachers. Our teachers are expected to be jacks-of-all-trades and our children’s safety is sacrificed.

This is not good enough. The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act will assist with and support the development of schoolwide mental health programs. It will also allow for funding to promote cooperation between schools and clinical mental health services. These programs will provide suicide prevention and mental health awareness training with the focus on early intervention to help students.

You may say, “But I don’t have any children that are school age. This isn’t my problem.” School violence is not the only thing that this bill aims to reduce. Other common consequences of unchecked mental health issues are dropping out of school, decreased vocational success and increased health problems. All taxpayers and every citizen of the United States will benefit from improved mental health awareness and increased mental health programs. Ignoring the need for school-based mental health programs leaves our nation open to higher rates of juvenile incarceration in facilities paid for by the taxpayers, increased dropouts who cannot successfully function in society and end up relying on public assistance paid for by taxpayers, and higher rates of unemployment, which lead the jobless to seek benefits paid for by taxpayers.

It’s just common sense. Our children are our future; cliché but true. This bill will help ensure they are safe at school and receiving the appropriate care they need to succeed, if not to simply stay alive. But don’t take my word for it. Get informed and then get involved. Let Montana’s elected officials know how important this is and support your local school districts.

Judith Baird of Great Falls is a social work graduate student at the University of Southern California. The concentration in her social welfare studies this semester has been on the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act.

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