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'Horses can't lie': Montana universities adopt new approaches to address mental health

Billings Gazette - 9/24/2022

Sep. 24—Stress and anxiety are nothing new on university campuses. But recent studies and metrics show that student mental health is declining at an alarming rate and universities across Montana are taking steps to address it.

Starting this fall at Montana State University Billings, a new option for therapy that has been used to treat veterans and families for years now hopes to do the same for students.

The nonprofit equine therapy program Horses Spirits Healing will offer a limited number of students the opportunity to work with therapy horses as a form of treatment for anxiety and depression. The goal is to develop a new sense of mental wellbeing while also building and a new sense of community that may previously been lacking.

"It develops something in common for them all to go home and talk about," program director Amanda Tusler said. "It helps them gain strength and confidence."

The goal of expanding mental health care options is just one of several new initiatives across Montana colleges. Last week, MSUB and the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education hosted a three-day mental health and wellness summit in partnership with the Montana University System Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Task Force to address student mental health.

"College campuses are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis," Wayne State Professor and summit keynote speaker Dr. Sasha Zhou said. "Many of you have probably seen this firsthand among students at your own school, but the research has shown that mental health issues among college students have increased nearly 50% in the last decade."

Concerns have grown

In response to the growing awareness of college student mental health struggles, the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education created the Suicide Prevention Taskforce in 2015. Initially, they found that many of the preventative approaches that could be implemented also applied to overall mental health and wellbeing.

"Over the intervening seven years, I think that those concerns have only grown," Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education Director of Student Affairs & Student Engagement Crystine Miller said. "And what that signals to us is that it does and will continue to have an impact on student retention and students eventually completing their degrees."

In the spring 2022 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment (ACHA NCHA), students reported that anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties and stress. The mental health promoting nonprofit Active Minds reported that 39% of college students experience a significant mental health issue, and that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reported 45,979 suicides nationwide in the year 2020, with Montana ranking in the top five for suicide rates in all age groups in Montana for the past 40 years.

State campus faculties reported that many of the issues facing students today like anxiety, depression, trauma and family separation are not new but generational factors like social media pressures, the COVID-19 pandemic, current inflation rates and costs of living have taken a toll on a larger majority of students' mental health in recent years.

Another trend reported throughout the summit was the de-stigmatization of discussing mental health and increased student engagement. Students were surveyed about symptoms like amounts of sleep, exercise and financial circumstances rather than questions directly addressing conditions like depression or anxiety.

"What would start as a student coming in needing to drop a class would turn into a bigger conversation," University of Montana Western Academic Advisor Suzanne Forester said. "And sometimes they would end up in tears because of everything they were dealing with."

In addition to student challenges, there is a lack of available faculty and staff trained to treat mental health issues. Referring to a faculty study conducted across universities last spring, Zhou reported 80% of college faculty having one-on-one conversations with students about their mental health with only 50% knowing how to recognize mental distress.

Forester said her campus has felt this strain of sufficient professionals with available personnel having similar encounters.

"We only have one counselor here and they're completely booked for weeks out," she said. "So our faculty and staff have tried to pick up the slack to try and fill that role and fill those gaps."

Creating a community

The primary takeaway at the summit was to re-direct the focus of mental health treatment as a public health crisis rather than an individual crisis. Representatives from the Montana University System and professionals from Montana's universities were in attendance to acknowledge and move forward with immediate solutions.

Proposals included incorporating available mental health resources into class syllabuses, continue to research and address current and developing trends, have professors and instructors undergo "gatekeeper" programs to identify mental health distress and make initial interventions or referrals without having to provide clinical care, and develop local partnerships outside campuses to enhance services.

"All of those people are in the room and at the table because we all have a role in mental health and in helping our students thrive," Miller said.

Universities that are currently lacking enough counselors on campus like Great Falls College MSU have begun partnering with local counselors in the community, while the University of Montana offers a wellness program for stress-reduction and Montana State University in Bozeman currently has an institutional wellness program in development for students.

At MSUB, Horses Spirits Healing already offers a different approach to mental health service. Originally started to treat military veterans, the program became widely embraced for its effectiveness in lowering patients' heartbeats and stress levels while also developing bonds with the animals and regular physical routines that include riding and caring for the horse.

Because horses are able to pick up on the mood and emotions of their riders, patients develop the physical strength and stability along with personal confidence needed to effectively ride the horse that, in turn, carries over into their everyday lives.

"Horses can't lie," Tusler said. "So they can act like more of a vessel to patients rather than traditional couch therapy."

The program will accept limited applicants up until the end of October and goes for eight weeks. Six students will partner with two horses throughout the program with a school counselor on staff to intervene when necessary and provide regular therapy efficacy.

Because the program has had so much success with bringing local veterans, families and organizations together, MSUB is hoping it will be able to do so for its students.

"The goal [with the new program] is to create that sense of community," Tusler said. "Where, by the end, the students have hopefully created new friendships, new connections along with more life skills that they might carry on going forward."


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