Psychologists, Mental Health and Youth Development

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Many professional groups comprise the tapestry of what Youth Today readers call “youth work”: Educators, health professionals, managers with MBAs, sociologists and economists all bring their special knowledge to research, direct service, management and policy work. And they all offer guidance into the principles and practices of youth work.

Over the summer I reviewed two extraordinary publications that were written mostly by psychologists. It got me thinking that some of the most noteworthy recent contributions to youth work have come from the various fields of psychology.

If I needed any evidence of the ascendancy of psychology in youth work, it came in a work carrying the longest title of any major report in recent memory: Treating and Preventing Adolescent Mental Health Disorders – What We Know and Don’t Know, A Research Agenda for Improving the Mental Health of Our Youth. It’s edited by psychologists Dwight L. Evans and six others from the Adolescent Mental Health Initiative, which is sponsored by the Annenberg Foundation Trust and Annenberg Public Policy Center.

This impressive collection of readings (818 pages) reminds us that one in five youths suffers from a developmental, emotional or behavioral problem with mental health dimensions. The U.S. Surgeon General reported in 2000 that one in 10 adolescents struggles with a mental health issue that is severe enough to lead to a “serious impairment.”

The first signs of mental health problems often appear in adolescence. So one would expect high standards in youth work for early detection, training of youth workers, treatment protocols, cross-program referrals and more. Yet the breadth of these competencies among agencies and staff in our field isn’t nearly enough to adequately deal with the high prevalence of mental health problems among youth.

Because the consequences of mental health problems reach deep into adulthood, this should be reason enough for government and foundation funders to provide more money and training for those working with teens. But consider this: Only one in two American high schools have formal mental health counseling services on site. Most youth programs don’t have such services at all, nor access to resources to routinely and adequately provide mental health care to youth.

To boost their own competence, youth workers can benefit from chapters in this report that review what we know and what we need to know about depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse and suicide. Then the Annenberg team, under psychologist Martin Seligman, adds a wonderful chapter, “Beyond Disorder,” reporting on the results of the Commission on Positive Youth Development; it essentially argues that the positive youth development movement is a sound mental health campaign for America’s youth.

As with most research about youth work today, many of the writers in this volume adopt the mantra of “evidence-based mental health treatments.” In other words, they want society to use only the most compelling, well-executed research in choosing treatments and approaches. Unfortunately, this isn’t always practical for those running youth programs, because they aren’t in a position to know whether their mental health providers are selecting “evidence-based” treatments.

Those who run youth programs can certainly identify with other findings by the psychologists about the youth field, including too few treatment evaluations, the difficulty in separating mental health issues from other issues (such as problems in school), gaps in knowledge about program implementation, fragmentation of service systems, cultural barriers and finances.

The other insightful publication is the huge, two-volume Encyclopedia of Applied Developmental Science, edited by psychologists Celia Fisher and Richard M. Lerner and published by Sage Publications. This encyclopedia for youth workers and others presents a comprehensive theory of applied developmental science, then offers A to Z coverage of topics from “Abstinence in Adolescence” to “Youth Programs.” (Apparently, nothing of interest in our field starts with Z.)

Fisher and Lerner deserve enormous credit. As Robert Granger, president of the W.T. Grant Foundation, writes in an introduction, “Applied developmental science has helped us see and synthesize what people need across the lifespan.” Fisher and Lerner show us the ability of psychologists to pull together information about individuals, families and communities in a kind of dynamic new science of development that is informed by theory and tested in practice.

Every time I tried to find space on my bookcase for these works, I found it more useful to leave them on my desk. Many youth workers and program administrators will as well.

Andrew Hahn is a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.