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 Systems Change and Healthy Youth Development: State Adolescent Health Resource Center Priorities

By Glynis Shea
Communications Director, Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health

Understanding where and how adolescents fit within state public health systems is both an essential component of and an ongoing challenge for the work of the HRSA/MCHB funded State Adolescent Health Resource Center. Housed at the University of Minnesota Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health, the State Adolescent Health Resource Center (SAHRC), provides training, resources and on-demand technical assistance to adolescent health staff (adolescent health coordinators) located in state systems.

Kristin Teipel, MPH – a former adolescent health coordinator herself – leads SAHRC. Fueled by her expertise and experiences, guided by some of the nation’s leading adolescent health researchers and supported by a university of resources, SAHRC collaborates with state adolescent health staff to improve systems and empower young people to be healthy. “Because of the nature of adolescent health, the 'coordinator' position is a strategic choice,” says Teipel. “Adolescent health intersects with and is impacted by a multitude of different public health and broader state systems entities. When a skilled adolescent health professional is able to inform and coordinate these resources, the system addresses adolescent health more effectively and efficiently.”

To encourage state system improvements, SAHRC supports adolescent health coordinators to use strategic approaches and draft strategic plans that coordinate and harness the collective power of their system. The hands-on experience of Ms. Teipel (in 1999, she created Minnesota Adolescent Health Plan) has been applied to more than 25 states specifically focused on strategic planning.

From her experience, Ms. Teipel knows that comprehensive strategic plans are both a challenge and a necessity for guiding the work of state systems. While there are exceptions, most states fund and staff adolescent-directed efforts based on specific health concerns – teen pregnancy and obesity, for example.

This silo-based approach runs counter to what adolescent health experts know – strategies that address the developmental needs of adolescents also address a multitude of health issues – obesity, teen pregnancy, suicide, violence involvement, alcohol and drug abuse. Based on resiliency theory, these are frequently referred to as “healthy youth development” or “positive youth development” strategies.

One of the earliest proponents of this approach was Dr. Gisela Konopka, MSW. In 1973, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare asked Dr. Konopka, a renowned adolescent health researcher and advocate, how to support the health of adolescents. Dr. Konopka created the “Fundamental Requirements for Healthy Youth Development” – a list that frames these needs as the “opportunities” that must be afforded young people to ensure their health and success. Among the required opportunities youth need:

  • To participate as citizens, as members of a household, as workers, and as responsible members of society
  • To gain experience in decision-making
  • To develop a feeling of accountability in the context of a relationship among equals

In keeping with the approach of Dr. Konopka (and those of many renowned adolescent health scholars), SAHRC emphasizes healthy youth development as a core strategy for adolescent health. Many states have embraced this model and demonstrated how effective it can be.

One of the longest running healthy youth development public health projects comes from New York. The New York State Department of Health created and continues to support ACT for Youth (ACT: Assets Coming Together) – a center focused on providing youth development resources, technical assistance and training for the youth serving community, as well as providing a home base for the “ACT Youth Network” – a statewide youth engagement and leadership initiative.

A more recent effort comes from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Colorado 9to25 is a collective, action-oriented group of Colorado youth and adults working in partnership to align efforts and achieve positive outcomes for all youth to reach their full potential. Created in collaboration with young people, this partnership supports youth activism and improved youth health systems by providing training and technical assistance.

“It’s an exciting time to be working with young people.” Says Ms. Teipel. “While adolescent health staff face many challenges – funding, restrictive policies, economic woes – the vibrancy, energy and optimism of young people continues to motivate and inspire us. The State Adolescent Health Resource Center is lucky to be a part of it all.”