Numerous opportunities in a variety of settings to improve the health and well-being of adolescents were highlighted throughout the workshop. While this can be a challenging topic that often gets left out of broader policy conversations, there are several promising practices and exciting research happening around the country to inform future efforts. This chapter summarizes the presentations and discussions that took place and offers suggestions for system changes and mindset shifts to better promote the flourishing of adolescents.
Several recommendations were shared in Chapter 2 from three recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine consensus reports on the promotion of youth thriving. Claire Brindis, codirector of the Adolescent and Young Adult Health National Resource Center at the University of California, San Francisco, highlighted the importance of a life-course approach that considers epigenetics and the unique opportunities to influence neurobiological behavior during adolescence. She called for redesigning sectors adolescents interact with, including education, health, child welfare, and the justice system. Nicole Kahn, program officer at the National Academies, elaborated on those opportunities, saying that risk-taking in adolescence is necessary and normal, and systems should work to provide chances for young people to take healthy risks and explore their environments. She also emphasized that youth are experts in their own lives, but social emotional learning programs can provide a foundation upon which other life skills can be built. Kahn also called for more research to effectively evaluate existing programs and ensure that they are cost-effective and accessible to all. Tamar Mendelson, director of the
Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, shared the school’s recommendation for the expansion of “health promotion” in the spectrum of mental health interventions, saying that there has not been enough emphasis on mental health promotion and prevention, which has resulted in continued stigma for many mental health disorders. In recognition of the need to increase the integration of effective strategies into real-world scenarios, Mendelson underscored the importance of implementation science, a critical aspect of which includes active engagement with the target community.
Chapter 3 summarized the need for including youth and family voices in order for young people to flourish. Best practices were shared from existing organizations, and young people also shared their own first-hand perspectives on how to do this more effectively. Kelly Headrick, senior director of state government affairs and grassroots advocacy for Autism Speaks, described their advocacy team, who utilize their own personal stories and voices to influence policy makers to consider needed changes. Tameka Brown, director of National Organizations for Youth Safety, shared the benefits of using interprofessionalism to increase youth engagement, saying that adults need to ensure that they are not “othering” youth and actually seeing them as having valuable contributions to public policy discussions. Francie Zimmerman, senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, emphasized the identification of structural levers of change as aids to increasing resilience in young people. She noted that youth engagement and leadership resulted in some of the biggest systemic changes they have seen, allowing systems to be more responsive to what young people need. She also offered youth-led and youth-designed training that can be used to help young people understand what they are going through during adolescence and also a validated survey measure to ascertain proxy indicators of well-being (both of these resources are outlined in Appendix C). Speakers from Youth as Self Advocates (YASA) both highlighted again the importance of letting youth lead the way, with adults taking on a supporting role. Matthew Shapiro from YASA also noted the importance of mentoring young people while they are navigating new experiences like going to college. Emily Ball of YASA also echoed the need to have a strong support system. She shared her experience of being diagnosed with mental illness at 19 and the difficulty she encountered learning more about her illness because of the technical medical language in materials. She urged the mental health industry to tailor its public resources to be more comprehensible and appropriate to the youth and particularly to consider writing resource materials to mirror how young people speak. Finally, Conor Curran of the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils, and DeAngelo Hughes, founder of the Detroit Flutter Foundation, both stressed how important it was for young people to have someone available to listen
when needed. Hughes especially called for peer-to-peer support, through which young people can learn that other people are struggling with similar challenges and not feel so alone. He also noted the importance of having therapists and counselors available who look like the young people they are working with so that the young person can be confident that they are encountering an empathetic listener who has experienced similar struggles. Curran also called attention to the effects of the pandemic and the social difficulty of remote learning for many students, but also to the digital divide that those with fewer resources will feel because they cannot access the needed technology as much as their classes demand.
Finally, Chapter 4 featured virtual participants speaking about ways to implement some of these best practices and the difficulty in truly drawing attention to and respecting lived experiences. Some participants shared that continuing to make youth engagement a priority is a constant process. There were also lessons on crafting effective messaging for adolescents. Daniel Busso, director of research at FrameWorks Institute, presented information on reframing to help inform participants about current narratives and point out where energy and efforts can be focused effectively. He also added that creating space for young people to tell their own stories can help the public to see young people through a lens of opportunity instead of just risk. Edward Schmit, cofounder of IDONTMIND, provided social media and branding recommendations around how to launch a successful campaign for mental health. The IDONTMIND team met people where they are by tapping into popular lifestyle clothing and shoe designs and using social media platforms like Instagram that already have millions of users. Schmit particularly underlined the importance of consistency and engagement with audiences and of really taking the time to understand what their users want and what would resonate with them. Finally, Kawanza Billy, program manager for Black Swan Academy, explained their youth-centered and youth-led approach to fighting systemic inequality. She urged the use of many colors and the importance of being creative and engaging when developing content to ensure continual youth involvement. She also suggested featuring other young people who are doing amazing things, as this can inspire youth to do more and stay involved.
In closing, Cheryl Polk, chief program officer at Safe & Sound, stressed that the Forum continue focusing on adolescents and engaging them to help understand what they need instead of making assumptions. She also underscored the importance of viewing adolescence as another important period of development, just like infancy or early childhood, and she looks forward to continuing the conversation within the context of relational health.