Tucked away in beautiful Montana is a mental health organization with a big heart. Youth Dynamics is the largest provider of comprehensive children’s mental health services across the state, serving 2,700 children and teens each year. With a state population of just over 1 million people – of which about 228,000 are children and youth – many Montana families benefit from the organization’s services.
Montana is known for its small towns and mountains. It’s a place where forests, deer, and elk outnumber people; a place that still carries the vestiges of the Wild West. The rural landscape, though breathtaking, does present certain challenges for Montana residents.
“Montana is a very large state. We have a lot of space, and a lot of rural areas, so there’s a lot of unfortunate circumstances where a kid can feel really isolated,” says Moyra Anthony, MSC, MBA, LCSW, Clinical Director for Community Services.
That kind of isolation can take a toll on anyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing. For many in the state of Montana, it can lead to symptoms of depression as well.
A diagnosis of depression is common for many of the children and teens that Youth Dynamics serve. At this stage of the organization’s 40-year history, addressing the prevalence of depression amongst Montana’s younger population is a top priority.
“We want to work with kiddos and their families to mitigate those symptoms, and to figure out a way for them to see the sunshine through a lot of those clouds,” says Anthony.
And when it comes to the mental health landscape across Montana, things have unfortunately been rather cloudy. Montana currently has the fourth-highest rate of teen suicide in the country – a trend that was particularly exacerbated over the course of the pandemic.
“In Montana, there’s a stigma around the old cowboys and how tough they were; you pull up your bootstraps and get over yourself,” says CEO Dennis Sulser, Ed. D . “Today it manifests itself in how people, especially men, address their mental health. Fortunately, we’re starting to overcome that culture in Montana, and recognize that tough guys need help at times. We all need to tend to our mental health.”
The Youth Dynamics Approach: Family-Oriented, Trauma-Sensitive
Youth Dynamics’ mission is to provide family-focused behavioral health treatment with an emphasis on an actively caring and trauma-sensitive culture.
That focus on family, and their sensitivity to trauma, are two elements that make Youth Dynamics such a unique treatment organization.
Because the lives and wellbeing of children and teens are inexorably linked to their familial unit and environment, Youth Dynamics believes that they’re not just treating the individual child, they’re committed to helping each family heal.
“The ultimate service we deliver is a ‘family service,’” explains Sulser. “In essence, we are trying to keep children with their families, address the trauma that has most likely happened in their background at some point in time…and help them grow and become better together.”
Youth Dynamics believes in addressing trauma head-on, with the intention to truly heal from it.
The organization is driven by a trauma-sensitive philosophy, meaning that they strive to be mindful of the trauma that their patients have endured at every step of the way. Many of the children and teens that Youth Dynamics serves have experienced considerable, and/or multiple incidents of trauma, and that dictates how they approach each patient encounter.
The Youth Dynamics team strives to be constantly aware of how they’re approaching each patient and family member. In the context of each child’s trauma, are they using the proper tone of voice, the right language? Are they communicating in a way that’s most comfortable and helpful to the patient?
One of the most important aspects of addressing the trauma of children is doing so as early as possible. The earlier you intervene in a child’s traumatic experience or environment, the better chance there is to correct negative elements, establish new skills and behaviors for the family, and achieve permanent healing. Youth Dynamics specializes in this type of early trauma intervention, which has been shown to create healthier and happier families, facilitate improved well-being, and even mitigate crime.
How Youth Dynamics Serves Montana
Youth Dynamics brings that approach to 19 communities across the state of Montana, offering case management, therapeutic foster care, family support assistance, mentoring, and home support services.
Youth Dynamics supports each family on an individual basis and strives to understand what’s working in each family and what’s not. Whether it’s exploring parent-child dynamics or understanding how a child is faring at school, caseworkers take a holistic approach that includes clinical care, medication, and community outreach. The organization takes pride in the truly wraparound services they provide Montana families.
Youth Dynamics also has 10 residential group homes, which currently run at a full capacity of 80, with 8 children to a home. Each home operates in a similar, structured manner in which the goals of a child’s individual treatment plan are addressed in a group setting.
The general treatment approach at these group homes can be described as a compassionate discipline. Youth are taught and pushed to live a more autonomous life. Staff work to get each child to a place where they can properly care for themselves, talk about their feelings, attend to their own needs, and organize their own space.
While structure and discipline play an important role, there is an overarching goal for the homes to function and operate as a family. Feelings are expressed and addressed. They learn to understand and support one another.
Youth Dynamics has seen fantastic results by taking children out of a dysfunctional environment and providing a safe, constructive one for them to learn and grow in.
For some of the children in these facilities, it’s scary at their real homes sometimes. Youth Dynamics does everything they can to make sure that’s not the case in their group homes. And they’ve made good on that goal.
“One of the overriding comments from our most recent survey of the group home kids is that, ‘I feel safe here. I don’t always like the structure and discipline that I have to attend to, but I feel safe here.’ And I think that says volumes about the program and the process, and the healing that children truly experience,” says Sulser.
Mentorship also plays a huge role in the homes, and in the services that Youth Dynamics provides, as many of the children may not have strong role models at home.
Sulser explains: “Part of what’s missing for these kids is having a strong adult mentor to guide them. They may not have a strong role model in their immediate family. We try to break that cycle through our mentorship program.”
He believes that having an adult mentor, an adult teacher, in your life is critical. Youth Dynamics understands that the most important teachers for children are their parents. They also understand that parents are not always the best teachers. By taking a two-pronged approach to this issue – providing healthy mentorship to the children in their programs and educating parents on how to raise their kids in a healthier way – they help make transformative changes for Montana families.
One of the group homes is a specialized program for highly sexualized boys, who often come to the organization through adjudication after they’ve had an offense. This is another element of the Youth Dynamics operation that sets them apart – it’s the only evidence-based treatment program for highly sexualized behaviors in the state of Montana.
Youth Dynamics believes that highly sexualized behaviors are serious, yet frequently treatable conditions. This program offers a place for pre-teens and teens to take responsibility for themselves, fully engage in their treatment, and work towards a healthier future for themselves and their families. Overall, the program has been tremendously successful at mitigating future offenses in this group.
A Dynamic Philosophy for a Dynamic Reality
In the symbolism behind its name, Youth Dynamics is about adjusting to life’s changes. It’s about understanding youth through the lens of their entire experience, no matter what they’ve been through, and dynamically adjusting to their needs over time.
The organization also believes deeply in children’s ability to be resilient, and in overcoming less-than-ideal family dynamics. That belief is one that’s held by the entire Youth Dynamics team. It’s one of the reasons the organization has been so successful in treating its population.
When talking to staff members across the organization, it’s clear that the Youth Dynamics team is truly aligned in the best possible way for the services they deliver.
“I have fallen in absolute love with this organization,” says Anthony. “It’s not just the work that we do, which I think is extremely important, and everybody that works here really has a passion for doing that. But I also love the people that do the work.”
Anthony explains that Youth Dynamics emphasizes the concept of family in two ways – how they approach the families they work with and how the staff embraces each other as one large family that serves families.
“We’re doing really great work helping these kiddos and these families. But we’re also doing really great work by taking care of each other.”
And therein lies the magic of Youth Dynamics. By operating as a family themselves, they are uniquely prepared to help the families of Montana heal and grow.
At the end of the day, the work of Youth Dynamics comes down to reuniting children with their families in a transformed, healthy home environment.
“Our final goal for every child is to re-experience their own home in a better situation. Ideally: permanently. Kids want permanency. And whatever it might take to get there – that’s what we strive for,” says Sulser.
“While it isn’t always a happy ending with each child – that’s the human condition – we have had incredible success over the years. And we are excited for what we can achieve with our kids in the future.”
Connecting with Youth Dynamics
If you are a Montana resident and would like to learn more about the services Youth Dynamics offers, and how they may be able to help your child and family, you can reach out to them directly here!