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 ­Engaging Youth in Public Health Initiatives

By Rena L. Large, MEd, CHES
State Adolescent Health Resource Center/Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota

Meaningful youth engagement is essential for including youth voices in the development of programs and policies that serve and impact them. State MCH programs solicit stakeholder input during the development stages of many programs, and especially the five-year needs assessment, and use a variety of approaches to involve youth and collect their feedback. The State Adolescent Health Resource Center (SAHRC) at the University of Minnesota has documented examples of youth engagement efforts within state health agencies in an effort to disseminate successful strategies and lessons learned. A selection of those examples is presented here.

In March, 2014, SAHRC at the University of Minnesota hosted a webinar showcasing state health agency strategies that engage youth in meaningful ways to shape Title V/MCH and other public health initiatives. The webinar featured state adolescent health coordinator colleagues from Wyoming, North Carolina and New York for a lively discussion on engaging youth in state levels needs assessments.

In 2013, the Wyoming MCH program established a dedicated adolescent health staff position to build a new, in-depth adolescent health program from scratch. As part of this new direction, a two-part focus group strategy is in process to solicit youth input for the next Title V five-year needs assessment. Part one is engaging youth through 10 community meetings around the state between March and May 2014. The community meetings will recruit a mix of urban, rural, and frontier youth of all ages through local youth serving agencies. Part two of this process will convene additional youth focus groups in 2015 to develop actionable strategies for addressing each youth health priority identified in the needs assessment. As part of this process, the MCH program will also contract with three to five young people to serve on a planning committee to give them an equal voice with adult planning partners.

Over the last year, the North Carolina Division of Public Health (NCDPH) has been convening youth focus groups around the state to explore strategies to promote adolescent health in the community and inform the work of the recently established NCDPH Adolescent Health Resource Center. Youth are recruited through community partners to solicit diverse youth perspectives. Focus groups conducted to date have included youth and young adults with disabilities, and youth participants of existing youth empowerment groups. A relationship with the University of North Carolina has provided substantial resources for the effort, engaging graduate students to craft focus group questions and create a facilitator’s guide.

The New York MCH program has long engaged youth in meaningful ways to shape youth-focused programming through an extensive partnership with the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence, an intermediary funded by the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) to provide technical assistance, training, evaluation, research and information dissemination. ACT for Youth facilitates an active statewide youth network to participate in the development of educational materials for the NYS DOH and advise on issues important and relevant to youth in the state. Youth are engaged as consultants, discussants/ speakers, and focus groups participants on critical adolescent sexual health issues including: family planning and reproductive health; preconception health; and binge drinking and preventing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

The March 2014 webinar built on an October 2013 webinar which showcased a broader range of youth engagement in state public health initiatives including:

The Alaska Division of Public Health Women’s, Children’s and Family Health Section manages a state-level youth advisory group, the Youth Alliance for a Healthier Alaska, which positions youth as equal partners in shaping state Title V/MCH adolescent health program and other health programs and to create interventions designed to improve the lives of adolescents in Alaska. Any state program can enlist the alliance to review their materials and youth oriented programs. The alliance meets once a month, engaging a diverse group of energetic youth, ages 14-18, from across Alaska.

The Iowa Department of Public Health, Bureau of Family Health engaged youth as advisors for the creation of an interactive website, IAMINCONTROL.org, dedicated to helping teens take control of their lives and make the healthiest choices for them. The site launched in 2012 and continues to engage youth as blog and site contributors. The website also provides youth with 24 phone and online access to trained counselors maintained by the Iowa State University Extension.

The New Mexico Department of Health, Office of School & Adolescent Health engages youth as trained actors/ teachers to build skills among school based health center (SBHC) providers and coordinators for communicating with adolescents in clinic settings. New Mexico YouthCHAT partners with the Public Academy for Performing Arts High School in Albuquerque to train youth actors to develop characters and portray health issues provide constructive feedback to SBHC providers and coordinators during mock interviews. Piloted in May 2013 at a state-level SBHC conference, the program continues to engage youth as actors/teachers and in being replicated in Spring 2014.

LESSONS LEARNED

A consistent theme throughout these youth engagement examples is that:

  • Significant relationships with community partners, academic institutions and other partners with access to youth research, information and youth themselves are key to successfully and meaningfully engaging youth
  • Youth engagement lends a critical insight into the real life concerns and perspectives of youth and engages youth in their own health care, decisions and programming
  • Youth engagement encourages a positive, resiliency focused frame for youth programming

For more information on these examples, audio/video archives and samples of tools, forms and products that can be used as examples for other states interested in implementing similar youth engagement strategies, visit the National Network of State Adolescent Health Coordinators website.