Input from youth is crucial in promoting adolescent health
There is a growing trend nationwide to include young people in an advisory capacity in decisions regarding policies or programs that affect their lives. In order for such a concept to be fully successful, efforts must include more than "token" youth participation, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Ideally, programs should fully engage young people and offer opportunities for personal enrichment and skill-building. The School's Center for Adolescent Health Promotion and Disease Prevention examines their philosophical approach to a youth advisory committee (YAC) in the April 2002 issue of Health Promotion Practice. This theme issue is devoted to the subject of eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities through community involvement.
"Including young people's perspectives is an integral part of fulfilling the Center's mission to promote adolescent health," says co-author Lisa K. Hohenemser, MPH, a senior research program coordinator at the Center for Adolescent Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The Baltimore City youth in our youth advisory committee play a vital role by providing ideas and feedback about ongoing work and assisting Center faculty and staff to better understand the concerns and priorities of young people, their families, and their communities."
For example, when members of the YAC were asked to review a survey designed to determine HIV risk behaviors for out-of-home youth, they found some questions to be lengthy, confusing, and repetitive. The volunteers worked together with the project's principal investigator to reword these questions and make them more youth-friendly. "The end result is simply a better product. We have found that young people offer a unique perspective and important insights that may not naturally occur to adults," adds Hohenemser. But, she points out, it is important to provide young people with opportunities for growth and learning in exchange for their time and input, aside from the experience itself.
Due to a lack of a tested model for establishing and maintaining and effective youth advisory committee, the YAC at the Center for Adolescent Health was established in accordance with principles of youth development. Hohenemser explains that youth development means more than just keeping young people out of trouble. It provides many of the experiences adolescents need to transition into adulthood. Her assessment of the YAC focuses on four areas that promote youth development: fostering stable adult-youth relationships based on respect and trust; viewing youth as resources to be developed rather than problems to be managed; encouraging youth participation in all aspects of a project, from idea to outcome and all the challenges that lie between; and offering the flexibility to adapt to the needs and interests of the youth participants.
"Our analysis reinforces the notion that in our efforts to promote adolescent health, it's essential to involve the adolescents themselves. On a larger scale, this assessment mirrors the findings of other articles within this journal's theme issue, which highlights the importance of community participation in the research process," says co-author Beth D. Marshall, CHES, MPH candidate, a health communications specialist at the Center. "The success of our program adds further support to the broader concept of involving communities, building trust, and strengthening ties between academic researchers and the communities they serve."