Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) - The House rejected a bill Monday that would have provided students in Montana’s middle and high schools with mental health screenings and get them help if necessary. The bill died on a vote of 51 against and 49 for. 

Rep. Jonathan Karlen, D-Missoula, is sponsoring House Bill 252. During the debate on the bill, Karlen again referenced a 2020 study conducted by the Department of Public Health and Human Services that showed the youth suicide rate for children aged 11-17 is more than double the national rate. He said the screening program would save lives in cases of suicide risk and it would also help families with other stressors.

“It's about connecting that family with the resources that they need and connecting young people with the resources that they need so that they can grow up to be productive adults in our community. The way I see this is, this is a small investment,” Karlen said.  

Some Montana students have been getting screenings in the last several years through a pilot program run by the The Rural Behavioral Health Institute. According to data provided through the RBHI, about 10% of the over 1,000 adolescents they screened in the 2021-2022 school year were at high risk of suicide. 

HB 252 would provide students with free mental health screenings for anxiety, depression and suicidality. It would then connect students with mental health professionals as soon as they need them, sometimes within the same day of the screening. 

The bill would have allocated $2.1 million in taxes collected from marijuana sales in the state for the first year of the program, which would cover half of a school year, and then $4.7 million per year in the following three years.

The bill passed through the House Human Services Committee on a vote of 18-3 on January 31.

Three lawmakers spoke against the bill in the full House on Monday – Republican Representatives Bob Phalen, Jane Gillette and Jennifer Carlson. They said that the program would be costly and the state already employs people who specialize in youth suicide prevention.

“This is a duplicative service. I fully appreciate the intent of this bill because we all care about our children and we want them to be safe. But this is not something I can support,” Carlson said.