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Idaho ranks as one of the least mentally healthy states in the nation for children.

According to Mental Health America, youth in Idaho have a higher prevalence of mental illness and a lower accessibility to mental health care than those in 47 other states, and the numbers are rising.

Todd Becraft, a teacher at Madison Junior High School and adviser of the Hope Squad, is an advocate for mental health awareness among children. He explained some of the pressures youth face.

“We have a community with extremely high moral standards, and that’s wonderful unless you fall short,” Becraft said. “You have a really high pressure to excel in athletics, and that’s wonderful unless you fall short, and there is a really high pressure to excel academically, which is wonderful unless you fall short.”

Those pressures may, at times, overwhelm the youth and make them feel unworthy or alone, potentially leading to mental illness. To combat those feelings, Becraft encouraged those in the community to be open and willing to talk about mental illness. Talking about it will help struggling youth know they are not alone.

”Just talking about it relieves some of the pressure,” Becraft said. “So, as a community, that’s what we have to do right now. We have to change our mentality and our culture to one that’s open. We tend to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to these things; a lot of us are scared to talk about it. And because we’re not talking about it, the message that we’re sending to our youth is, ‘this is bad,’ and that’s just not true at all. So I think just getting the public to the point where we’re willing to talk about those things openly will send the message to our kids that what they are feeling and experiencing is normal.”

The future depends on the health and happiness of the rising generations, so it is crucial that parents, teachers and community members educate themselves on signs of potential mental illness and what they can do to help.

How can parents help?

First and foremost, children need to feel loved and accepted. Becraft encouraged parents to directly tell their kids they are loved and valued through words, not just actions.

“As parents, we can’t just hint around at mental health,” Becraft said. “We have to be willing to be persistent. They need to know that it really doesn’t matter what they feel, what they think or at what position they find themselves in, there is nothing they could ever say or do that would cause you to love them any less. The world is better because they’re in it, and there would never be a scenario where we would be better off if they’re not here. They have to know that.”

He also emphasized the importance of openness and communication between parents and children regarding mental health. This will create a safe space for their children to talk and share their feelings.

“If you want your kids to feel comfortable talking about their mental health, you need to do the same,” Becraft said. “You need to model for your kids that it’s OK to say, ‘I am not in a good place; I’m struggling, and I just need to know that people care,’ and then your kids will do the same.”

Mental Health America explains that both a child’s physical, mental and emotional needs must be met. On their website, they recommend that parents promote a healthy lifestyle, boost their children’s self-confidence, praise them, set realistic goals, communicate honestly and love unconditionally.

Signs of potential mental illness in children

A child’s mental health can greatly impact their development, so it is important for parents to educate themselves on the warning signs.

Symptoms vary depending on the specific illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides the following lists of mental illness warning signs to look for in children.

Anxiety

• “Being very afraid when away from parents (separation anxiety)

• Having extreme fear about a specific thing or situation, such as dogs, insects, or going to the doctor (phobias)

• Being very afraid of school and other places where there are people (social anxiety)

• Being very worried about the future and about bad things happening (general anxiety)

• Having repeated episodes of sudden, unexpected, intense fear that come with symptoms like heart pounding, having trouble breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweaty (panic disorder)”

Depression

• “Feeling sad, hopeless, or irritable a lot of the time

• Not wanting to do or enjoy doing fun things

• Showing changes in eating patterns — eating a lot more or a lot less than usual

• Showing changes in sleep patterns — sleeping a lot more or a lot less than normal

• Showing changes in energy — being tired and sluggish or tense and restless a lot of the time

• Having a hard time paying attention

• Feeling worthless, useless, or guilty

• Showing self-injury and self-destructive behavior”

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

• “Having unwanted thoughts, impulses, or images that occur over and over and which cause anxiety or distress.

• Having to think about or say something over and over (for example, counting, or repeating words over and over silently or out loud)

• Having to do something over and over (for example, hand-washing, placing things in a specific order, or checking the same things over and over, like whether a door is locked)

• Having to do something over and over according to certain rules that must be followed exactly in order to make an obsession go away.”

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

• “Reliving the event over and over in thought or in play

• Nightmares and sleep problems

• Becoming very upset when something causes memories of the event

• Lack of positive emotions

• Intense ongoing fear or sadness

• Irritability and angry outbursts

• Constantly looking for possible threats, being easily startled

• Acting helpless, hopeless or withdrawn

• Denying that the event happened or feeling numb

• Avoiding places or people associated with the event”

If parents notice warning signs in their children, they should speak with their child’s health provider about treatments and resources in the area.

Local Resources

Madison Cares

According to its website, “Madison Cares is a program designed to develop a mental heath care system that works better for families and their loved ones.”

Madison Cares works to improve mental health for all ages. Its program provides many different events, campaigns, classes and support groups to build mental health awareness, help those struggling and educate people of all ages. There are also classes to help parents build meaningful relationships with their children, cope with stress and learn about emotion coaching.

Madison Cares is located at 60 West Main St. in Rexburg, Idaho, and their phone number is 208-359-1256.

The Hope Squad

The Hope Squad program — founded by Dr. Gregory A. Hudnall in Provo, Utah — is a support team consisting of advisors and trust-worthy students that have been hand-selected by their peers. In Rexburg, both Madison High School and Madison Jr. High have recently implemented this program within their schools.

Becraft described the student nomination process and why it is important.

“Every student in the junior high nominates three fellow students that they would go to on their darkest day and would be willing to talk to,” Becraft said. “Then we take all of those names, we find the names that are mentioned the most, and we make sure that we represent all different groups. We want band kids represented, jocks, cheerleaders and the loners. We have somebody representing all of those, and then they become the Hope Squad.”

After the nomination process, students within the Hope Squad receive training on how to better recognize and help individuals who are struggling with their mental health.

“They’re not going to become counselors or anything like that, but they will be trained on how to look for red flags, how to recognize when students are struggling and how to talk to those students to help point them in the direction of resources that they can get help,” Becraft said. “The ultimate goal with the squad would be that we change the culture of the school in general.”

Even though this program is still in its beginning stages, Becraft has already noticed an increased awareness within the school district.

“The culture really does change,” Becraft said. “As far as improvement, I think that, as a school district, we’re finally getting to the point where we’re recognizing that this is an issue, and just ignoring it is not going to help the situation at all.”

Flourish Point

According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, “42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year … and 48% of LGBTQ youth reported they wanted counseling from a mental health professional but were unable to receive it in the past year.”

Flourish Point aims to provide individuals within the LGBTQ+ community and their families with mental health care and support. For those struggling with mental illness, Flourish Point offers individual, group, family and couple therapy sessions.

Along with therapy sessions, individuals can choose clothing from a gender affirming closet, watch movies and read books from a free library and receive food if needed.

To encourage acceptance and awareness within the community, Flourish Point also runs presentations, events and fundraisers.

Flourish Point is located at 343 E. Fourth Suite 238 in Rexburg. Its phone number is 208-252-5995.