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Montana Academy

Montana Academy, located near Marion, opened in 1997 as a way to "move psychiatric care out from under hospital overheads and to reduce the cost" for teenagers that could be treated on an open ranch, co-director John McKinnon said. A boy from Colorado with severe depression killed himself there in 2017.

I would like to thank the Missoulian for its series on private alternative residential or outdoor programs for teens which coincides with two related draft bills scheduled for the state's current legislative session, as you noted in your Jan. 27 editorial.

I support greater state oversight and licensing, but only if experts in child development, mental health and education are conducting inspections and making accreditation decisions. I also agree that these programs should fall under the state's Department of Public Health and Human Services and not the Department of Labor and Industry.

As a parent of a current Montana Academy student, I would like to share our journey and lessons we have learned so far — as well as those of parents we’ve met through our shared experiences — in hopes that this will help those facing the decision of how to help their struggling teenagers.

When life at home became untenable, following our son’s difficulties with family, school, friendships, legal and dangerous medical issues, we had to look for help from beyond our community. Possibilities included wilderness therapy programs, therapeutic boarding schools, hospital programs and residential treatment centers. We found the process of determining the next steps to be overwhelming and difficult. After exhausting our local health care resources, we sent our child to a wilderness program, and from there, we found our way to Montana Academy.

Here are a few “lessons learned” from navigating the industry which may be helpful to others.

• Hire an educational consultant you trust. These consultants visit programs around the country, work with your teen's health care professionals and teachers, do their own assessments, and increase the odds a child will be placed in the most appropriate program.

• Recognize that private alternative residential programs vary in quality. Beware of programs that use questionable methods and punitive measures as well as those with rapid staff and leadership turnover.

• Look for family involvement in the program. The best private programs involve the family directly in the therapeutic process, giving them far more access to their teens than some of your articles suggest. Teens' struggles often reflect family dynamics, requiring family therapy to identify and modify triggers and parental behaviors vital to a child's mental health and behavior. At MA, we have benefited from parent workshops rich in information, training and family therapy.

• Make transparency a priority. If programs are not responsive to early questions about treatment methods and consequences, itemized program costs, staff credentials, outcomes data and facilities management, then they won't be after your child is there.

• Be aware that teen suicide is on the rise. Teen suicide is a public health crisis and often has multiple causes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rates for teens have increased more than 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. We were concerned and saddened when we learned from school staff about the suicide of a boy at MA. I can’t imagine the pain his family has experienced, and I don’t pretend to know the particulars of his personal struggles. However, his case is the only campus suicide in MA’s history — a critical piece of data omitted from the article. By contrast, multiple teens committed suicide in one of our peer family’s local public high schools last year within a few weeks of each other. Tragically, determined suicidal teens will take their lives anywhere — in hospitals, schools and their own homes.

• Don’t write off Montana Academy — the gold standard for kids with our teens’ issues. MA has an unusually long history (22 years) and demonstrated record of transforming many teens' lives. We feel so fortunate to have our child at MA, and our personal experience is not consistent with the picture painted by your newspaper.

I have no doubt that we and the other MA families will learn additional lessons during our journeys with our teens. Our son has made progress we could not have imagined a year ago when we felt we were facing a life-or-death situation. We wouldn't wish this scenario on any other family, but we hope resources like those offered by Montana Academy continue to be available to other troubled kids.

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Jennifer Egan writes on behalf of several parents who wish to remain anonymous to protect their children’s identities. Egan lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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