The Teton County Community Alliance for Resiliency and Educational Support, meeting July 21, welcomed member Ingrid Hill as the newly hired leader for the grant-funded Teton County Crisis Response System.

“Ingrid worked with Gallatin County on their CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) program. She has good experience, and we’re so excited to have her lead us through this project,” said CARES Chairwoman Melissa Moyer. Hill and her husband now reside in Power. When she’s not doing contract work in mental health, she and her husband work as fourth-generation farmers.

CARES applied for the grant from the Addictive and Mental Disorders Division of the Department of Public Health and Human Services and received $36,000. “These grants are very broad and could be used for almost anything: to support existing systems, build new ones, purchase PPE (personal protective equipment), any way to support individuals dealing with behavioral health issues,” said Moyer. “We identified crisis response as one of the key things we wanted to work toward.”

A crisis response system ensures that first responders are educated and equipped to identify and properly respond to behavioral health crises. “We see this a lot across the state, and even more with rural entities. It’s incredibly common for your first responders — and not a mental health professional — to be the first, primary contact or possibly the only contact for someone who is suicidal or who needs other behavioral health support,” explained Hill. “We want to make sure these first responders feel equipped to deal with these situations.”

Hill said her first step in her new role is to evaluate the current situation and determine the specific needs of the county by talking with community members. “I want to make sure we’re meeting our specific needs, especially considering any extra strains on the system with COVID-19,” she said.

Although her background is in CIT training, Hill said there are a variety of options that might best serve Teton County. CIT training is very valuable, but it typically requires 40 hours of training for a person to become fully certified — a full week off duty to train is a lot for small departments to commit to. The CARES group is looking at ways to make this affordable, if it is determined to be the best option for the community. Other options include mental health first aid training for the general public (not geared toward first responders only) or developing a mobile crisis unit.

A mobile crisis unit is made up of mental health professionals that would go on behavioral health calls with first responders. A mobile crisis unit would require use of a call system to know when and where to respond. If a mobile unit was determined to be the best course of action for Teton County, developers would need to work with law enforcement on data tracking to predict how often the unit would be needed. (For example, in the Teton County sheriff’s docket for the week prior to the CARES meeting, there were two potential suicide calls. Some weeks, there are no behavioral health calls.)

“I’m excited for this opportunity to lend my experience and dive into the community and get to know my neighbors,” Hill said.

In other discussion, the CARES group heard from Karlee Tchida, a sustainability coach for PAX Good Behavior Game with the University of Montana’s Center for Children and Families who covers Teton County, among other areas. “My job is to assist schools in creating a plan to support PAX. The goal is that this isn’t just a program schools do for a year or two and then drop when something else shiny and new comes along, but something that can be sustained long-term,” she said.

The state received grant funding to help implement PAX in schools that wanted it. Choteau and Power school districts applied to be “exemplar schools,” meaning they agree to take extra steps to ensure that PAX is used in their school in return for added benefits. This makes Choteau and Power two out of only 17 school districts in the state to become a PAX exemplar school. The other exemplar partners are Absarokee, Belt, Billings, Cardwell, Clancy, Cut Bank, DeSmet, Glasgow, Havre Boys and Girls Club, Helena, Joliet, Missoula, Seeley and Twin Bridges.

To be an exemplar school, a school district must write PAX into its Continuous School Improvement Plan, create an implementation team (who will also meet in the summer), agree to data collection, identify a staff member as an official “PAX partner,” meet with a sustainability coach at least twice a year, achieve an 80% staff consensus rate and have four staff meetings a year to discuss PAX.

In return, exemplar schools enjoy the benefits of an additional $900 stipend each for up to two PAX partners, training materials, support from a sustainability coach, funding for replacement materials, reimbursement for professional development and substitute teachers and curriculum pay/mileage/lodging/per diem for up to six implementation team members.

“We talked with focus groups on how we could help sustain PAX. The biggest concerns were funding and having the time to implement it. These benefits really help and are so needed,” Tchida said.

Tschida is a former elementary teacher and now runs a preschool out of her home. She says she has used PAX in her teaching and has seen dramatically positive results.

“The change in attitudes and self-regulation is pretty amazing to see,” she said. “I had one little boy who is always a busy little guy. After we practiced PAX activities, I saw he was about to jump off a bench. I watched as he stopped and said to himself, ‘Wait, pump the brake.’ He was able to stop and think about his actions.”

The PAX Good Behavior Game uses evidence-based strategies to teach children to self-regulate their emotions. For teachers, it often has the added benefits of increased classroom productivity and reduced social conflicts and more peace in the classroom. (PAX is the Latin word for peace.) It also is thought to have the added benefit of reducing long-term risk factors such as violence and drug use.

“One of the best things about PAX is that many of the kernels (teaching tools) can be used at home or in a virtual or socially distanced learning environment, if that’s necessary. These skills are still applicable — and probably even more so now with the current health crisis. With these scary routine changes and classrooms looking different this year, kids will need that extra support and mental/emotional flexibility now more than ever,” said Tchida.

The next CARES meeting is scheduled for Aug. 18.