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New reading program promotes mental health awareness at Billings Senior High

Posted at 9:12 AM, May 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-19 11:12:44-04

BILLINGS — As the school year winds down, a Billings educator is already looking forward to new lessons for next year.

At Billings Senior High, English teacher Doug Oltrogge and several others are tackling a contemporary crisis with a classic text.

The stories of Randle Patrick McMurphy in Nurse Ratched’s psychiatric ward will now live on in the hands of students who will start the new school year with dozens of new copies of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."

“The big idea is, there’s seven to ten primary characters and what we’re going to want to do is have students study the characters, study their behaviors, and then connect it to a mental illness in the DSMV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Then write a separate research paper or presentation on the mental illness itself to share with the class,” Oltrogge said.

Jack Nicholson in a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Students will research the story, and learn important lessons for themselves.

“To just get kids thinking about their mental state in general. More of an exercise of metacognition of their own behaviors by analyzing the behaviors of these characters,” he said.

Oltrogge hopes to open up a conversation about mental health that doesn’t end when the assignment is due.

“Ideally, what it's going to do is create space for these kids to openly discuss mental health in an unreserved way,” he said.

The books were purchased with a grant from the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools.

The nonprofit group awarded over $100,000 in grants for Billings classrooms this spring. It’s their largest annual pay-out, ever.

“We’re able to work with the teachers to say, ya know, their budgets are limited, what do you want to do that’s not going to be supported by the normal budget that you get as an educator,” said Kelly McCandless, Executive Director of the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools.

For Billings Senior High School students next fall, that means a reflection on classic literature, themselves, and the world around them.

“We live in a world that’s rife with mental health issues, and I think just by empowering the students to discuss it, to talk about it, to know how to research it, and then to also communicate with other people through presentations, that’s going to be an advantage that serves them well," Oltrogge said.