Center serves children with mental health disorders

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MISSOULA, Mont. -- The University of Montana received a grant in 2003 to
establish the Montana Center for the Investigation and Treatment of
Childhood Trauma. The center serves children experiencing symptoms of
depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in Indian country.

The competitive grant was awarded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental
Health Services Agency. Administered by UM's Division of Educational
Research and Service, the center provides cognitive behavioral intervention
for trauma in schools.

"Depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms are common mental health
disorders in the United States," said Rick van den Pol, the center's
principal investigator. "According to the American Psychological
Association, 8 percent of the population suffers from PTSD at least once in
their life, and 10 percent or more experience depression."

Data concerning American Indian populations is sparse, he said, but some
research indicates that as many as 22 percent may suffer from PTSD.

"Native Americans may experience symptoms linked to intergenerational
trauma, stemming largely from years of oppression and detrimental
government policies," said center Director Darrel Stolle. "When working
with Native American children who have been exposed to violence, it is
essential to understand how the current trauma is impacted by historical
events."

Aaron Morsette is the center's trauma intervention specialist from Rocky
Boy's Indian Reservation, home to Montana's Chippewa Cree tribe. He said,
"In every Native American community where we have worked, tribal members
have endorsed the relevance and value of this project in addressing some of
the mental health needs of their children."

Van den Pol said, "Since we first started this project in Rocky Boy, we
have seen significant growth. In fact, we have had the honor of receiving
invitations from many sovereign Indian nations, including the Blackfeet
tribe, the Leech Lake tribe in Minnesota, the Oglala people on the Pine
Ridge Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of the Salish and Kootenai on
the Flathead."

CBITS was developed in Los Angeles and used with Hispanic and Asian
children. In Indian country, CBITS initially was delivered in the fall 2004
to children on the Rocky Boy's reservation. Morsette recently completed
data analysis from the CBITS delivery. Results indicate that 14 percent of
children who participated in the initial survey demonstrated significant
levels of depression and post-traumatic symptoms.

Following completion of the CBITS program, 75 percent of children reported
they were better able to concentrate and no longer felt sad. The remaining
25 percent who didn't show significant improvement on the survey reported
to counselors that they felt better.

"Community and school violence is quite common in our society and can have
long-term emotional impacts on children and adults," van den Pol said.
"Fortunately, in our demonstration sites, children who participated in
CBITS improved."

Center Evaluator David Schuldberg said, "We wanted to make a few
modifications to the delivery of CBITS. For instance, we have found that
while many kids have symptoms of PTSD and depression, they are more
troubled by grief and loss issues. We need to better understand the role of
bereavement and how it interacts with PTSD."

"As an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree tribe, I find the early results
from CBITS very promising," Morsette said. "If left untreated, depression
and PTSD can have detrimental impacts on a child's academic achievement and
social life, and can lead to maladaptive behaviors such as alcohol and
substance abuse."

The trauma work is an ongoing process, and project staff work continuously
with school personnel from each of the reservation communities the project
serves. In addition, trauma researchers nationally have expressed interest
in the results, as has the federal grant sponsor.

"It is a delicate balance to responsibly celebrate the successes of
participant children without intruding on the rights of sovereign nations
to own the results of reservation-based evaluation studies," van den Pol
said. "Our position is simple: The tribes own the data, and we need their
approval to share those data with third parties."

He added, "We have found that in order to successfully make an impact in a
community it is essential that we first establish relationships with the
individuals and tribal agencies we work with. Establishing relationships
allows us to learn about and respond to the communities' needs and provide
more long-term services. If we succeed in that, there will be a great deal
more work to do at the time our grant funding ends."

Collaboration for the project stems from research conducted through the
DERS' Montana Safe Schools Project, which has received significant
bipartisan interest and support from Montana U.S. Sens. Conrad Burns and
Max Baucus. Burns has been particularly committed to ensuring that the Safe
Schools Project and DERS' mental health services reach small, rural schools
and reservation communities across Montana.

Since DERS received funding, project staff have worked closely with tribal
councils, school administrators and community members.

"Implementing the project is an ongoing process, and we are continually
looking for ways to involve families, the community and school personnel in
the services we provide," Stolle said.