Obesity and mental illness are the top public health concerns in northern Idaho, according to a study released Thursday.
Both kids and adults struggle with their waistlines, the study found. And depression and suicide rates are high, particularly among young Native American men and men age 75 and older.
To complete the study, the Panhandle and North Central Idaho health districts surveyed 1,500 local residents and health care professionals at hospitals in the state’s 10 northern counties, a mostly rural region with about 224,000 residents.
Lora Whalen, the Panhandle Health District’s director, said the assessment is the first, broad-scale study of its kind for the region.
“The ultimate goal is to improve the health of our citizens,” she said.
The assessment comes with a five-year action plan. By focusing attention on the “persistent problems of obesity and mental health,” Whalen said the districts hope to turn those health issues into community priorities.
Obesity is linked to other chronic health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease. And the rising trend of obese children and youth means that generation will likely have shorter life spans than their parents.
The health district is targeting obesity through workplace programs that encourage physical activity. It will also track the number of preschools and daycares that offer healthy foods, and increase physical activities while decreasing children’s TV and computer time.
By 2019, the health district’s goal is to reduce the self-reported rates of adults who are overweight and obese in northern Idaho from 66 percent to 59 percent. Health officials also want to see a corresponding drop in diabetes. On the mental health side, the five-year goal is to reduce northern Idaho’s suicide rates and improve access to mental health services.
Idaho consistently ranks high for suicide rates. In 2010, it had the nation’s sixth highest suicide rate.
Whalen said the health district will continue to lobby for a crisis center in northern Idaho and additional mental health care providers.
“When people are in crisis, and a danger to themselves or others, they end up in the emergency room or in jail,” she said. “This is a much more cost-effective way to provide care, and get them the help they need.”
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