Idaho group aims to understand, address youth mental health issues - East Idaho News

Idaho group aims to understand, address youth mental health issues

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BOISE ( — Imagine a swarm of high schoolers in Boise walking in a crowded hall. Four out of every 10 of those students struggled with moderate to severe depressive symptoms in 2022, according to a student wellness survey conducted in the Boise School District.

The U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called the youth mental health crisis an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”

“We don’t have to be overwhelmed by this crisis. We can just start working on it,” said Communities for Youth director Megan Smith.

Communities for Youth is an Idaho group aiming to understand, address and prevent youth mental health issues. Smith started Communities for Youth a few years ago after six years as a classroom teacher, where she wondered how to “build the best possible environments for young people.”

Organizers start first by “collecting youth voices” in the form of both surveys and student focus groups. Then, they bring that information to community members and work with them to create concrete action plans tailored to the needs of their youth.

For example, in one rural community, young people weren’t perceiving kindness at their school based on surveys and listening groups. Researchers explained the issue to community members and worked with them to develop an action plan. This led to a monthly event that “recentered the communities on kindness and brought the kids and the parents together” with a shared meal and activity. This was “developed totally by community members in that area,” Smith explained.

Deputy Director Matt Isbell added that the community directs the creation of action plans, and that “leveraging the strengths of our communities and letting them have voice and ownership over the work that’s getting done with the kids is really impactful.”

Communities for Youth organizers avow their dedication to involving youth in the process as much as possible by meeting with them in focus groups, asking them questions and searching to understand their experiences. Smith explained, “we’re really trying to draw out their voices as much as possible, and it’s beautiful to watch these young people over the course of [these] focus groups open up… because we just listen.”

Surveys also play a big role in understanding students. In 2022, survey results from Boise School District and other districts around the state showed high levels of social isolation and stress from teens. BSD workers studied these results and put in action plans to tackle challenges.

This year the survey was opt-in, pursuant to the Parent Choice legislation passed earlier this year, meaning every participant needed a signed form from a parent or guardian. Smith explained in part because of this adjustment, this year there were not enough participants to officially analyze and release survey results.

Despite this setback, Smith is optimistic about the future. “I think right now we are just in a transition phase where parents in Idaho…now have to be more active about [approving their students to take surveys]. So we’re going to transition and I do think we are going to get there next year.”

When it comes to schools and youth mental health, Smith says they can address and prevent problems of loneliness by “doing what they do best” and fostering social connection among students and trusted adults.

One school did this by bringing all faculty and staff into a room with every student’s name up on the wall. If one of the adults had an authentic relationship with the student, they signed under the name. “What became very clear was that some kids just didn’t have any connection at the school” Smith articulated. When adults committed to work on social connection in their building, depression and ideation rates decreased significantly the next year.

Currently, Communities for Youth is working on the “Boise Youth Mental Health Initiative” in partnership with the City of Boise and St. Luke’s. Based on student voices from the 2022 survey data and student focus groups, they are meeting with community members to create action plans to increase social connection in Boise and surrounding areas. Smith emphasized, “if we as a community come together around social connection, we will see a difference.”

Upcoming Boise Action Team meetings:

  • Tuesday, Dec. 12, at the Library! at Hillcrest, from 4:30-6 p.m.
  • Thursday, Jan. 18, at the Library! at Hillcrest, from 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Originally posted on on December 4, 2023