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Bikers ride to bring awareness to children's mental health on Pony Express Line

By A. Marie Hamilton, Sidney Sun-Telegraph

SIDNEY – Sidney Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) and Sidney Police Department (SPD) pulled out all the stops for children at Western Nebraska Community College (WNCC) and Sidney CASA during the 16th Annual Pony Express Ride Across Nebraska tour to advocate for children's mental health awareness on Thursday.

One in six youth will experience a mental health crisis this year, an alarming statistic the Pony Express Ride Across Nebraska group hopes to highlight, advocate about and pursue solutions for.

SVFD escorted the group from the western edge of the county and city to the eastern edge of the county as they traveled the second leg of the trip through Sidney, Ogallala, North Platte, Gothenburg and Kearney.

Ride Across Nebraska Event Organizer Holly Stevens told the Sun-Telegraph, the organization hopes to highlight that simple acts of engaging children about their fears, concerns and future aspirations is the best place to start when discussing mental health concerns of youth.

Ride Across Nebraska began on Wednesday in Scottsbluff at the Cirrus House and traveled through Cheyenne County before making their way along the old Pony Express Line using U.S. Highway 30.

On Friday, the group traveled through Grand Island, York, Columbus, Norfolk and Fremont. On Saturday, the group made it into Omaha and held a rally at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln.

Their cause? To advance awareness, support, advocacy and research to combat the youth mental health crisis.

Along the ride, bikers picked up and received letters from children, families, advocates and children's mental health supporters at each stop to deliver to the government officials at the Nebraska State Capitol.

Families Care Center for Advocacy Resources and Education sponsors the event each year. The nonprofit is a family organization which provides services to Central Nebraska families who have children with emotional, behavioral or mental health challenges. Some services the agency offers include:

• Advocacy and support;

• Help in identifying strengths, needs and goals of their children;

• Help in developing strategies to meet their goals;

• Offers resource and services referrals;

• Support families at school meetings such as IEP and/or 504 meetings as well as team meetings or meetings for youth services with the court systems;

• Sends out newsletter and information that is beneficial to the families it serves;

• Offers support groups for parents, young adults and children;

• Offers a transitional age youth program for individuals aged 16 to 26 years old; and

• Hosts a number of special events to highlight awareness and advocacy efforts – such as the Ride Across Nebraska event.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "indicators of positive mental health are present in most children" according to reports and surveys from parents.

"Depression and anxiety have increased over time," CDC wrote. "Ever having been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression."

Among children aged 6 to 17 years old, the number of diagnosis increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007 and again to 8.4% between 2011 and 2012.

Anxiety has also continued to increase among youth aged 6 to 17; from 5.5% in 2007 to 6.4% between 2011 and 2012.

Although depression is on the rise among youth aged 6 to 17, it continues to steadily increase at a substantially lower rate; in 2007 the number of youth diagnosed with depression was 4.7% and it slightly increased to 4.9% between 2011 and 2012.

The CDC says depression, substance use and suicides remain an important concern for adolescents aged 12 to 17 years old. The most recent survey and report between 2018 and 2019, as the agency is currently on reformatting and working on data to cover the COVID-19 pandemic years, a number of persistent factors continue to be problematic for American youths.

The CDC provided the following data to demonstrate the number of youth aged 12 to 17 years old that experienced the following concerns regarding their mental health:

15.1% had a major depressive episode;

36.7% had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness;

4.1% had a substance use disorder;

1.6% had an illicit drug use disorder;

18.8% seriously considered attempting suicide;

15.7% made a suicide plan;

8.9% attempted suicide; and

2.5% made a suicide attempt requiring medical treatment.

Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (NDHHS) Division of Behavioral Health released the 2020 Nebraska State Epidemiological Profile report in October 2021, this same report for 2022 is expected to be released later this year in the fall, which indicated alcohol use, tobacco use, illicit drug use and mental health concerns among youth continue to steadily incline across the state.

The full report is available free of charge to all Nebraskans online by visiting and search under reports for behavioral health documents and then the 2020 epidemiological report.

This division in the state department was established in 2007 to specifically address the increasing concern of mental health across the state and in 2013 obtained grants to include mental health concerns specifically among Nebraskan youths.

According to the NDHHS data provided to the Sun-Telegraph, Nebraska youth aged 14 to 18 years old, or ninth through twelfth grades, percentage per populace of alcohol consumption is significantly lower than that of the rest of the United States.

NDHHS reported a total of 21% of Nebraska youth reported they have consumed alcohol at least one time in the month before the survey was taken in late 2019.

Of the Nebraska students who reported to have had at least one alcoholic beverage, 17.4% were male and 24.7% were female; 9.8% were in ninth grade, 19% were in tenth grade, 24.5% were in eleventh grade, and 30.2% were in twelfth grade.

When compared to the national statistics for the same time: 29.2% of American youth aged 14 to 18 years old, reportedly had at least one alcoholic drink. Of the national numbers, 26.4% were male and 39.1% were female students: 19% were in ninth grade, 26.7% were in tenth grade, 32.3% were in eleventh grade, and 39.9% were in twelfth grade.

However, according to the CDC, these numbers are trending down and have been since 2011, except a slight increase in 2017.

Comparatively speaking: the risk behavioral factors in relation to current alcohol use among high school students in Nebraska as it relates to mental health diagnosis of teens remains well below the national averages.

Despite remaining lower than the national and regional Midwest averages of teenage consumption as it relates to mental health diagnoses, Nebraska ranks among the highest reported among teens in the nation. The rankings of prevalence among teens is ranked into four categories: 31.1% to 48.9% in the lowest ranking, 49% to 54% in the second lowest ranking, 54.4% to 58.9% in the second highest ranking and 59% to 58.6% in the highest ranking.

According to collaborative data from the CDC and NDHHS, Nebraska is within the highest ranking of 59% to 58.6% of youth experiencing mental health crisis with higher substance consumption.

Eleven other states rank in the highest bracket, those states include: Montana, Colorado, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Neighboring states South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas ranks in the second highest bracket, reporting 54.1% to 58.8%. States like Wyoming, Missouri, Arizona and Idaho rank in the second lowest bracket of 49% to 54%. Meanwhile, eleven states rank in the lowest bracket of 31.1% to 48.9%, which include states like Utah, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia and North Carolina.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Nebraska division, 1 in 6 youth aged 6 to 17 years old experience a mental health disorder each year. Of that group, roughly 22,000 Nebraska youth, aged 12 to 17 years old, have depression.

More than half of this group, in a February 2021, reported the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted their mental health, another 60.1% were unable to get the needed counseling or therapy.

High school students with depression are more than two times more likely to drop out of school compared to their peers.

According to NAMI, roughly one individual across the nation dies by suicide every 11 minutes; in 2020, the agency reported 271 Nebraskan lives were lost to suicide due to depression and other under-treated, mistreated, under-reported, misdiagnosed or undiagnosed mental health concerns.

From data the agency has complied following adults from their problematic youths, 1 in 4 individuals with a serious mental illness have been arrested by police at some point in their lifetime; another 2 in 5 adults in jail or prison have a history of mental illness. The number of juveniles currently in the justice system that have a mental health condition is 7 in 10 youth aged 12 to 17 years old.

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The Sun-Telegraph wants to remind readers that if you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis to please speak to someone immediately, such as a trusted friend, family member, community member, local veteran agency or health care professional.


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