The way we take care of kids is a cultural disaster

The BDN’s recent article on youth with serious mental illnesses at Long Creek Youth Development Center (March 1, We will have another incident: prison cannot treat severely mentally ill youth, report says) should have us up in arms. These youth are being committed to a detention facility because there’s no place else for them to go. Sure, they commit crimes, but one report cited in the article documents that these youth typically have a string of mental health issues well before that.

Their biggest crime is having a mental illness.

We should be up in arms, and we should be doing something about it. I don’t usually believe in collective responsibility – after all, I can only control what I can control myself – but we are all responsible for creating our culture. And our culture is making our kids sick.

One approach to changing this is to think about “protective factors.” These are the things in a youth’s life that youth gain skills and self-confidence and resilience to cope with difficulties that life throws their way. Research shows that communities have a role to play, and that includes each one of us adults. Here are the five protective factors that we can help give adolescents:

  • Mentors and support for development of skills and interests. Is there someone in your life who helped you and was a role model? Maybe a teacher or a neighbor or one of your parents’ friends? Maybe you didn’t realize it until later, but that person was probably important for helping you learn new skills and pursue your interests. Maybe you could be that mentor for a young person in your community.
  • Opportunities for engagement at school and in the community. Volunteer opportunities and work give our lives purpose and meaning, and they create important connections to other people. Youth can be engaged and be a part of building community, if we help create opportunities for them.
  • Positive norms. Social norms are the rules we use to define what’s appropriate and what’s not, which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t, and generally what our shared beliefs and attitudes are. Positive norms can be specific, like “in our community, we use discussions to solve problems, not violence.” They can also be more general, like “everyone in our community has something to contribute.” We should communicate clearly and consistently what our community’s positive norms are.
  • Clear expectations for behavior. This goes hand in hand with positive community norms. If youth don’t know what is expected of them, they might not figure out how to behave properly. Certainly the media won’t help them figure that out. We need to be clear and consistent about our expectations for youth.
  • Physical and psychological safety. It’s not just the police’s job to keep people safe. We need to be involved as well, by making it clear that no one should expect physical violence, no one should be bullied, and no one should be shamed.

People in communities all over Maine are working on these protective factors, formally in programs and informally as community members. You can ask around in your community and school to see who is taking the lead and how you can get involved. You can also, as an individual, be a good role model, talk about your community’s norms, and do your part to keep youth safe.

This isn’t rocket science. We know what helps kids stay healthy, mentally and physically. Wherever you are in your community or your profession, you can help. Let’s get on it, now.

Alison Webb

About Alison Webb

Alison Webb is a public health consultant with over 20 years experience in community outreach, grassroots organizing, implementing and evaluating evidence-based programs, and advocating for healthy policies at the Maine State Legislature. Alison is especially interested in what science tells us about promoting health and wellness and how we can apply that to live well in Maine. The blog describes recent public health research and give readers insights into how to use that knowledge to lead healthy lives.