Student Spotlight: Nathan Stahley

Nathan Stahley (person) smiling at the camera

In this episode, we hear from Bertha Morton winner Nathan Stahley on his goal of developing healthy communities through support of youth. He hopes to use his time in the Social Work program to enhance his skills in the interests of increasing access to mental health support in rural communities.  

Story Transcript

JANET FINN: Very few of our master’s students in social work come in with a background in marketing, and, I just, I am struck by how he’s been able to bridge a marketing background and social work in ways that I think he’s helping us learn new ways that you deliver and market the kind of messaging that’s needed for changing our horrific suicide rates in the state, or, you know, for addressing a trauma-informed approach to life and work in general. And so, I think he’s really got these unique sets of skills that is going to move our profession forward and is also going to benefit our state.

ASHBY KINCH: You just heard the voice of Dr. Janet Finn, Professor of Social Work, talking about her student, Nathan Stahley, one of the Bertha Morton Graduate student scholarship winners for 2021-22. 

Welcome to Confluence, where great ideas flow together, the podcast of the graduate school of the University of Montana. I'm Ashby Kinch, associate dean of the graduate school. This episode of Confluence is part of a series recognizing the achievements of some of our outstanding graduate students. Named for a great Montanan who dedicated her life to public service, the Bertha Morton award was endowed to support graduate education by recognizing the distinctive contributions our graduate students make in research, creative activity, and public service. Nathan stands out as a Bertha Morton awardee for his impeccable work ethic, which he brings to his graduate education with the goal further developing his knowledge and skills to better understand the complexities contributing to Montana’s high suicide rate. Working with Partnership for Children for his professional practicum, Nathan continues to establish himself as a leader on the front lines of suicide prevention in Montana. We're proud to share his graduate story with listeners. Enjoy the float. 

KINCH: Thanks for joining us, Nathan. 

STAHLEY: Yeah, thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here. 

KINCH: So first off, let's talk a little about your Montana story and how it connects with Bertha Morton's legacy. Bertha, as you know, was a great Montanan who endowed this incredible award specifically, support and encourage people like you who are bringing their graduate training to bear on work that helps Montanans.  

STAHLEY: Yeah. You know, so I'm born and raised in Billings. My parents are from Montana, and Montana has always been really just a part of me, right? So, when I decided about grad school, to kind of go to social work and follow this dream of mine, Missoula just felt right, you know? It really did a good job I think of blending kind of this macro and micro world of helping people. So how do you help them as an individual, but how do you help them through systems and policy change? And so really, I think, you know, again, Montana's a part of me. I love being outside. I love everything about Montana. So, staying here to do my graduate experience and finding ways to help Montanans has been just a part of my journey. Yeah.   

KINCH: That's fantastic. And I think you did some work prior to coming to, back to get your degree. Tell us about that. And then, you know, what your current work is kind of allowing you to extend and do that's new.  

STAHLEY: Yeah. So, I've worked, you know, my undergrad was like 12 years ago. And so, since then I've worked in social service and public health. And really when I was doing work at the City-County Health Department in Billings, I became aware of what was called the adverse childhood experiences study and the ACES – they called it ACES study as well – and when I learned about that really it's this idea that these experiences that we have as children, really, these negative experiences, these toxic events really can increase our risk for a variety of health outcomes as adults. And so that was a big moment for me when I was working in public health and from that, you know, one of the things was suicide, right. High rates of suicide. And in Montana, we have one of the highest rates of suicide and we always have, in the nation. So those are some big moments, I think, in my early professional career that drew me to continuing to help Montanans, but doing it in, you know, in a way that's more aligned with kind of social work, right? Mental health related things. And so, in public health, you know, I led, I chaired a coalition, and we did a lot of work on educating around the issues and the topics of suicide. Training individuals to better respond, to be more comfortable to ask their friend, you know, if someone's thinking about suicide or you're feeling they might be, it's okay to ask. It's – suicides everybody's business. It's not just the medical community that needs to be a part of this solution. So that was really, again, one of my things early on in my professional career that drew me to continuing my path in social work.  

KINCH: Yeah. So that problem of de-stigmatizing discussion of suicide, you know, we can come back to the specifics of that, but that's a broad concern in mental health field, you know, getting more attention and more public conversation about mental health as a kind of normal health problem rather than being this isolated internal problem. But in suicide, in particular, it's tricky, right? Because part of de-stigmatization might be discussion. And then we know there's some research that there's a, suicide contagion is a problem. So how do you kind of handle that issue?  

STAHLEY: Yeah, I think one thing to kind of note is if you ask a friend about, you know, are you thinking of suicide? If you ask them that, you're not putting the idea of suicide in their head. You know, if they're thinking about it, they're thinking about it. And then guess what? You're kind of a relief valve. You're, you're going to let the pressure off and you're a friend that cares about them. So, I think that, you know, there is some contagion as far as, you know, kind of the copycat with suicide. So… 

KINCH: Yeah. The news coverage maybe more so than the interpersonal part.  

STAHLEY: Yeah. So, the way that the news covers it, you know, being more detailed about the means of suicide. That's an issue. I think there's a lot of work that can be done in education and even the language around it. We hear a lot of, you know, this person committed suicide, or when you hear the word commit, you think of a crime.  

KINCH: Yeah. 

STAHLEY: And so, there’s some things… 

KINCH: It frames it as this illegal thing, which of course it is in many states. 

STAHLEY: And so, I think that there's a lot of work to be done to just reduce the stigma through conversation even the conversations we have, it's okay to talk about it, right?  

KINCH: Yeah.  

STAHLEY: A lot of people struggle with mental health issues and that's okay. It's a part of, it's a part of life, especially depression, right? A lot of us will have times of depression, and there may be more significant or more clinically diagnosed in different ways, but it's okay to talk about these things.  

KINCH: Yeah. And as a graduate student, it's interesting, you, you know, you've already kind of brought in, you know, your frame is in public health and now in social work. But, of course, all of these fields also cross into, you know, some psychology is involved and some public health and public administration and policy. So, you know, why social work in particular? Why did that appeal to you and/or how does that bring in the work of all these other fields? 

STAHLEY: Yeah, that's a good question. So, I think with social work, it feels like there's a lot more bridge building. It's a lot more connected between those worlds. You know, the public health work that I was doing really a social worker could be doing what I was doing. You know, this idea of how do you bring community together to respond to an issue? Well, a social worker, you're going to get a little more understanding of, again, more of the like diagnoses. Like I'm understanding that through the program now where in public health I wouldn't understand mental health diagnoses. And so, I think it's providing me an experience where I'm going to be better equipped to understand mental health on a more medical level on a clinical level, but it's also equipping me, and the skills I've already gained through public health, to have conversations, right. How do I bring people together to solve a bigger, a bigger challenge that a community is facing then just going to provide therapy, for example? So, it's kind of looking at both angles.  

KINCH: Yeah, this is the macro-micro connection, right? And so, the micro part is the practices of social work. And so, you know, you're finishing your first year, what have you learned through that process so far? 

STAHLEY: Yeah, I think it's been interesting with the pandemic, right? So, it's been a lot of learning how to communicate in different means than normal. You know, we had a class where we got to practice doing essentially counseling work, but it's all tele-health.  

KINCH: Yeah.  

STAHLEY: So, some of the skills that I wasn't really thinking when I applied that I'm learning would be that, for example. Like, how do you reach people when you can't be face-to-face, for example. So that's one like really tangible thing that I take away.  

KINCH: And that's so interesting too because tele-health delivery has been a kind of vexed area and then all of a sudden it was essential. Like everyone had to do it, whereas before people were somewhat resistant to doing it. 

STAHLEY: Yeah. And so, I think it's broadening skills across the board in the profession around how do we provide services to people that are in rural settings especially. And this might be a tool that I think personally, I do think it will become more of a tool. So, we can get more services, mental health services, to rural areas. 

KINCH: And so, this summer you’re heading back to Billings. Tell us more about what you're going to be doing there during your summer work.  

STAHLEY: Yeah. So, I've decided I'm going to do an AmeriCorps 10-week summer associate position. And so, through that, it'll be – I love working with kids, I love working with families, I've done that through my practicum experience – and now going to Billings, I'll be working at the United Way there, really working with youth to kind of, you know, this idea of how do we foster a commitment to serving the community and service learning is kind of the model that we're looking at. So, this idea of getting youth to understand the value of participating in community activities, advocacy, and volunteerism. So, I'm pretty excited. It'll be pretty cool to have that opportunity in Billings for 10 weeks.  

KINCH: Fantastic. Well, thanks for coming in and congratulations again.  

STAHLEY: Yeah, thank you guys. This has been a joy to speak with you all today.  

KINCH: If you enjoyed this episode of Confluence, subscribe to our podcast feed at Apple, Google, Spotify, or Stitcher. Make sure to rate, and review to support our enterprise of bringing you the voices of graduate education at the University of Montana! We’ll see you next time.