Montana State University

Promising new youth suicide prevention intervention program to be provided in Montana

May 26, 2016 -- By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

A promising new youth suicide prevention intervention program designed to enhance mental health resiliency in youth will be provided in schools across Montana thanks to a $303,000 grant from the Montana Research and Economic Development Initiative, a group of committed facilitators and the Montana State University Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN — A promising new youth suicide prevention intervention program designed to enhance mental health resiliency in youth will be provided in schools across Montana thanks to a $303,000 grant from the Montana Research and Economic Development Initiative, a group of committed facilitators and the Montana State University Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery.

The research-based program, which has been found to reduce suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts by more than 50 percent, is called YAM (or Youth Aware of Mental Health). The five-hour program is spread over five weeks. Using trained facilitators, YAM includes interactive talks, as well as three hours of role-playing and mental health referral resources for youth. The program is designed to teach both mental health awareness and risk factors that are associated with suicide, as well as a set of skills for dealing with adverse life events. An important component of YAM is that it is directly delivered to each youth, rather than to “gatekeepers,” or those people who frequently interact with youth, such as teachers, school staff and community leaders, according to Dr. Matt Byerly, head of the MSU Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery, which helped bring the program to Montana.

“The focus of YAM is unique compared to other interventions for youth,” Byerly said. “It’s not gatekeeper training, and it’s also not limited to an educational focus. It has important components that are meant to develop skills, including skills in emotional health and the ability to navigate stressful situations. Other important components include building connectedness and empathy for youth with their peers.”

YAM will be provided this fall and next spring to 1,000 to 1,500 students in approximately 11 schools throughout Montana, including several schools on American Indian reservations. Most of the students will be in ninth grade, although there will also be some participating seventh and eighth grade classrooms. The program will also be delivered at several large schools in Texas.

Montana and Texas will be the first states in the nation where YAM is delivered, Byerly said. In addition to delivering the program to students, researchers will conduct an initial study to determine YAM’s feasibility and acceptability by youth, their parents, schools and communities in the U.S., Byerly said. A third component of the effort is to adapt YAM so that it is culturally appropriate for high school students, American Indian students and youth of military service families in Montana.

YAM was developed in Sweden, and more than 11,000 ninth grade students in 10 European countries participated in the initial study. Results of the study showed that, YAM was the only intervention of three that was superior to the control group, reducing suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts by more than 50 percent compared to the control group. The findings were published in the journal “Lancet” in 2015.

Four master trainers of YAM visited Bozeman in April to provide a week-long training for YAM facilitators, which was the first training of its kind in the U.S. Twelve Montanans and three Texans completed the training.

“A key component of YAM is that the program is delivered by a group of people with expertise working with youth regarding mental health issues,” Byerly said. He noted that many of the facilitators are people who have advanced education in mental health fields, as well as teachers and community health professionals.

“The facilitators who gathered in Bozeman this spring are a diverse group in terms of their age and ethnicity, and they’re also a group of incredibly competent and committed people,” Byerly added.

Funding for the facilitator training was provided by the MSU Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery. Funding for providing YAM to students in the group of 11 schools in Montana, as well as for assessing the program’s feasibility and accessibility, comes from the Montana Research and Economic Development Initiative grant.

“MSU is grateful to have received a grant from the Montana Research and Economic Development Initiative to help fund this initial study,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “Suicide has a devastating effect on citizens and communities across Montana, and we at Montana State University are committed to working with others to continue to address this important issue.”   

For schools that participate in YAM, a town hall meeting will be held in each community before the program begins, Byerly said. At that meeting, parents and youth, as well as the school’s teachers, staff and administrators will be invited to hear about YAM and to have their questions addressed.

While all of the students in the participating schools and classrooms will receive the training, parental consent will be required for youth to participate in the study component of YAM, Byerly said.

The initial YAM study will be completed in Montana in June 2017, and preliminary results should be available then, Byerly said. Additional results will be available in the fall of 2017. The researchers also intend to publish the results of the study in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, he said.

Byerly hopes that the initial study will lay the foundation for the next step – a randomized control trial to determine the effectiveness of YAM in the U.S. That next study would be critical to helping policy makers and communities make decisions about whether to incorporate YAM as part of resiliency planning, he said.

Ultimately, he hopes YAM will help further efforts to address a big issue in the state.

“Suicide is a huge problem in Montana -- one of the biggest problems Montana faces,” Byerly said. “We’re fortunate to have this opportunity to be the earliest involved with a very promising intervention. Ultimately, we’ll be participating in evaluating the true impact of the intervention.”

Contact: Dr. Matt Byerly, director, MSU Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery, (406) 994-1601 or mattbyerly@montana.edu