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Strengthening The Youth Voice

I am writing this post as I prepare to meet with Cheryl Jacques, Director of DMHAS Young Adult Services (YAS) with Michael Scanlon of the CT Strong Initiative and Jessica Goldman of NAMI – CT. We are scheduled to discuss strengthening the “youth” voice.

About 6 years ago, I worked with Sheryl Breetz of North Central Regional Mental Health Board to study the topic. In our report we found that there were fragmented opportunities for young people to gain leadership and advocacy skills. After speaking with key stakeholders, people who are directly affected by or have an interest in the outcome of a project, we found that there are limited opportunities for young people to gain the professional development needed to make an informed contribution at the decision making table. By this I means that organizations, groups, and agencies have sought the perspective of young people who receive their services with little investment in training that would provide the knowledge, and overall confidence, to speak up at meetings which are predominately comprised of older adults who have been working in a bureaucratic leadership role for decades.

For example, myself (director of a peer run initiative for young people in recovery), along with Michael and Jessica, are key stakeholders because our jobs depend on us being included in the conversation, but also we identify as being young people with lived experience. Therefore, our direct involvement as recipients of behavioral health services make us an asset to organizations, groups, and agencies who seek to tailor programming to the unique experience of being a young person who is achieving recovery while transitioning to adulthood in the 21st Century. Despite being employed by credible organizations that certainly have influence within the greater behavioral heath system, we have yet to be granted the opportunity to organize as an autonomous group of young people.

To note, this will be my ask today because I have never asked directly for an investment in organizing an autonomous group of young people who can work with systems, organizations, and agencies to strengthen programming and tailor services to meet the unique needs of young people who are transitioning into adulthood in the 21st Century. A possible reason why I haven’t is because of insecurity and self-doubt centered on the fact that I have been young and therefore lack the knowledge needed to operate within the adult world and I have a serious mental illness which means that I lack the capacity to provide meaningful input in the decision making process. I obviously have come quite a ways over the past 8 years, but these factors still influence my motivation and follow through to a lesser degree today. Despite any personal growth I have made, I believe that these are the labels that we need to have an open dialogue about combatting when discussing youth leadership within the behavioral health system.

I am not alone in my beliefs about this as a number of theories speak to the power differential based on age, mental health status, organizational structure, education, socioeconomic status, etc. All of which come into play when considering involving systemically marginalized individuals in decision making dialogues with those who have the power to deliver a service that was developed to meet a defined need for moving out of marginalization (further reading)

The gap noted above continues to remain prevalent throughout our state despite concerted efforts to organize and mobilize young people around participatory action research externally from the system. It appears that establishing pathways within organizations and agencies for young people to contribute to the planning of programming has strengthened considerably over the past few years with initiatives such as CT Strong. However, who benefits the most from this design and how authentic is the contribution once a young person is co-opted to adopt the organizational values and culture? Meaning, despite the best intentions of those within a position of management within an organization, the perceived areas of needed change might not match the views of those who are being invited into the decision making process. Inevitably, the ultimate power rests in management who, working within the authoritarian

So why YAS? YAS offers comprehensive behavioral health programming to young adults between the ages of 18-25 who experience chronic and persistent serious mental illness through either state operated or state funded programming. The state operated programming is delivered through a Local Mental Health Authority, also known as an LMHA, that is 100% funded by State and Federal dollars, with all employees working for the State. An example is Capitol Region Mental Health Center (CRMHC) on Hartford. There are also private non-profits that operate as the LMHA for a given area. This includes organizations such as Community Mental Health Affiliates (CMHA) out of New Britain and United Services Win Willimantic. These YAS programs have much for flexibility in the way they deliver their programming because they are able to apply private dollars to enhance the programming that they offer. The most tangible evidence of this can be observed in the physical space in which services are delivered. State operated facilities tend to be older, less maintained spaces, with little updates, and a grimmer – more institutionalized feeling. There are 6 state operated, 1 state funded program offered through a partnership with Yale, and 7 state funded private non-profit programs throughout the state.

I know that personally I am beyond excited to have a candid discussion with DMHAS YAS leadership about about providing an authentic opportunity to strengthen the youth voice. We will see if competing interests of organizations come into play during the dialogue, or if we can come to the table as human beings who seek to ensure that young people have the opportunity to achieve recovery and successfully transition into adulthood. Ultimately, will we be empowered through an investment that would enable us to organize, mobilize, and inform programming as an autonomous group of young people?

Further reading

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