Program prepares Montana State students to provide mental health counseling in rural areas

Anne Cantrell
Montana State University
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In 2013, Kelcy Jensen-Coon’s cousin, who was 20, died by suicide, Jensen-Coon said.

Both had grown up in Wisdom, a small community in southwest Montana. Jensen-Coon, who was then 19, saw how the death impacted her family and community, and she wishes there had been mental health services readily available close by for the family and community to utilize.

Jensen-Coon, who is now a graduate student in the counseling program in Montana State University’s (MSU) Department of Health and Human Development, would like to make clinical mental health counseling services more accessible to small communities across Montana, like Wisdom. A program at MSU is helping her get closer to achieving her goal.

The Rural Mental Health Preparation/Practice Pathway is a collaboration between MSU, the University of Montana (UM) and the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) to prepare counselors to provide services for Montana’s rural schools and communities.

In 2019, MSU, UM and OPI received a five-year, $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for the program. Montana was one of only three states to receive the grant.

In order to train the students, the program uses a four-step process: rural life orientation; rural professional practicum and rural counseling course; rural internship and online learning models; and rural professional practice.

The majority of the grant funds support graduate students in their preparation and their post-graduation placement, including their lodging, travel and living expenses during a 10-month internship they must complete before graduation. As part of the grant, MSU and UM provide financial support for approximately 10 students each year who are enrolled in their universities’ graduate counseling and counselor education programs.

Over the lifetime of the grant, approximately 50 students will be supported, and they will provide counseling at high-needs rural schools over the course of the five-year grant. Additional support will be available for one year for program graduates who choose to continue to work after graduation in a rural setting.

Jensen-Coon, who is wrapping up her first year in MSU’s counseling program and the Rural Mental Health Preparation/Practice Pathway, said the program is providing valuable information that will help her deliver mental health care in rural Montana communities.

One example is a rural life orientation experience that she and other students recently completed in Big Fork. While there, the students visited the school and met members of the school team focused on counseling and mental health, including a school psychologist, counselors, a school nurse and a school resource officer.

Jensen-Coon said the people with whom they met gave the students a good idea of how to work together within a system to address mental health issues.

“We really saw how supportive they all were of one another and how much they accomplished,” she said. “It was pretty incredible.”

Jensen-Coon has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Utah. She said she wanted to find a way to use that degree that would connect her to the human experience, be fulfilling and give her purpose. Counseling seemed like the obvious choice, she said. She chose MSU’s counseling program because it’s in her home state, an “amazing” program and has an emphasis on providing access to counseling in rural areas.

Dana Janes is graduating this spring from the same program with a dual focus on clinical mental health counseling and school counseling.

As part of her experience in the Rural Mental Health Preparation/Practice Pathway, Janes completed internships in several small Montana communities, including Gardiner, Pray and Big Sky.

“This program has given me so much knowledge and personal growth,” Janes said. “It has also provided so much information to be confident and comfortable to go out into the job force and have those basic skills, basic knowledge and understanding. But overall what really stands out for me when I think about the program is the valuable experience I gained especially in rural settings, as well as the personal growth that I’ve gained through this program.”

Janes, who is from a small community in northwestern New Jersey called Ogdensburg, originally moved to Montana to work in Yellowstone National Park. She later received an undergraduate degree from MSU in applied psychology and a minor in international business, as well as certificates in marketing and business entrepreneurship.

As an undergraduate, she began volunteering with a local nonprofit, Big Sky Youth Empowerment, where she discovered a passion for working with teenagers and vulnerable youth. A staff member there encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree in school counseling; Janes did that and also decided to study clinical mental health counseling.

As part of her experience in the counseling program, Janes completed internships last fall at Ophir School and Lone Peak High School in Big Sky. She said she regularly interacted with students while there, doing individual counseling, group counseling, guidance lessons, community outreach and participating in school meetings focused on supporting students and more.

In part to experience a different kind of rural setting, this spring Janes completed internships at a K-12 school in Gardiner and at a K-8 school in Pray, both of which she said were incredible learning experiences.

“I gained so much knowledge and experience in these real-life situations that school counselors go through,” she said. “I feel happy and satisfied that I was a significant part of these rural schools.”

Janes added that the rural life orientation experience, which she completed in Ennis, was valuable. Her group spent three days in the town, meeting with members of the community, including school counselors, teachers, a minister, school coaches, medical professionals, a student resource officer and members of local government.

“All of these people shared different views on rural life, including what they see as difficulties, what they appreciate about rural life and where they would like to see their town go in the future,” she said. “It was a great experience.”

In the future, Janes would like to work as a clinical mental health counselor while integrating some of her knowledge of school counseling into her work, perhaps in a rural area.

Anna Elliott, the grant’s principal investigator and an associate professor in MSU’s counseling program in the College of Education, Health and Human Development, said the value of the program has exceeded her expectations, both in terms of what it can offer to rural communities in Montana as well as the profound impact it has on students’ development.

“Not only does the Rural Mental Health Preparation/Practice Pathway offer students experience in understanding and working with mental health issues specific to rural communities, it also teaches them how to work with cultural humility within a larger system,” Elliott said. “They can’t just show up at a new school and expect to be able to immediately apply what they learned the semester before. They need to be curious and open to learning about the specific culture about the school, how it functions, and how their skills can be utilized to support the students’ mental health.

“It has also provided us as counselor educators and supervisors with a more in-depth, nuanced understanding of the challenges that school counselors and mental health professionals face in Montana, and that impacts how we train and engage in mental health advocacy.”  

Contact: Anna Elliott, 406-994-3245 or anna.elliott@montana.edu; or Rebecca Koltz, 406-994-3244 or rebecca.koltz@montana.edu