In the United States, 80 percent of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60 percent of kids with diagnosable depression do not recieve the treatment they need— numbers which, to clinical psychologist Dr. Renae Reinardy, are just not acceptable.
“Childhood mental health is the most important thing,” she said. “If you don’t have your mental health, and if you don’t catch kids early who may be predisposed, it creates a whole host of other problems for people later on. It increases the likelihood of academic failure, it increases the risk of substance abuse, social isolation, depression… all of these things for untreated anxiety.”
Reinardy has been specialized in treated anxiety disorders for 16 years, and is perhaps best known for being the original therapist on the hit A&E show Hoarders. When the show first aired in 2009, hoarding was not a widely recognized condition; it was not even a diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
“[Hoarders] was a huge success in being able to increase awareness,” Reinardy said. “There’s more people being trained, it’s now classified as its own medical condition, and more people know that it’s something they can get help for.”
Now, Reinardy hopes to raise similar awareness of childhood mental health with her ecommerce company, Courage Critters.
What is Courage Critters?
Courage Critters is a program Reinardy designed to help children stand up to common childhood fears and learn how to control body focused repetitive behaviors (BFRB) like picking, hair-pulling, and biting.
“We know that kids’ imagination is very powerful, and a lot of kids benefit by having a transitional object, whether that’s a blankie or a stuffed animal or something like that,” she said. “It’s more than just a stuffed animal. It’s a whole emotional toolkit for kids.”
When children purchase their Courage Critter, they also recieve a Courage Card bearing a password to the online Courage Club. As members of the club, they recieve access to a number of extra resources and information on topics like relaxation skills, identifying triggers, cognitive restructuring, building a behavioral hierarchy, and the pillars of health: sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
“Something that makes me so passionate about Courage Critters is that I think kids should know these things,” Reinardy said. “It should be like part of health class. They should know how to do cognitive restructuring just like they know how to brush their teeth.”
One of the greatest benefits Reinardy sees with Courage Critters is the integration of play with technology. She loves to see children talking to their Courage Critter, or taking him around on bike rides.
“They are actually using problem solving skills, they’re engaged in language development, emotional coping development, something that they’re not getting by just sitting and watching a tv show,” she said.
Any child can purchase a Courage Critter– kids afraid of sleeping in the dark and kids afraid before surgery, kids with autism and anxiety and kids with cancer. And, Reinardy said, it’s not just kids who are finding comfort and courage in the Critter. While in Chicago for a recent conference on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, she saw a young woman hugging the green-and-purple dinosaur to her chest while hitting the town with her friends.
From clinical practice to small business
The idea of Courage Critters came easily to Reinardy; bringing it to fruition, however, proved to be a more difficult process.
“I’m a really good psychologist,” she said. “I don’t know that much about the business element of things.”
She found a patent attorney and managed to recieve a trademark for the brand, and worked with a developer in New York to create a website– that is, until said developer “went dark” two weeks before her business was supposed to go live.
“I all of a sudden had to become an expert in web development and put together a website,” she said.
She also designed the Courage Critter herself, creating sketches and researching materials and colors. She selected bright green and purple, colors that would convey power and success to children.
“I wanted him to look tough and powerful, but he also had to look compassionate and soft,” she said.
Courage Critters launched in November 2014, and business has been booming ever since. She has recieved orders from Canada, Australia, and all 50 of the United States, all without any formal marketing. The majority of her customers, she said, have found her through Facebook or personal recommendations.
Now, after almost two years of business, Reinardy is reaching out to the professionals to help her grow Courage Critters’ impact. She is working with Minneapolis-based Periscope on marketing, and Fargo’s own Hash Interactive to improve her online platform. The Critters are currently available for purchase only at couragecritters.com and in specialty locations like Vintage Point gift shop in Fargo, but she hopes to see them on more shelves soon.
But revenue is not the priority for Reinardy, who, at the end of the day, is a psychologist before she is a business woman. She donates Courage Critters to foundations like Make-a-Wish and Service Dogs of America, to military events, and to patients at Rogers Memorial Hospital.
“I’ll probably never get rich off of Courage Critters, and that’s fine,” she said. “It’s more of this personal mission that I have, to make these skills more accessible.”