Youth Workers: Public Health Heroes

By: Lauren Bard

As he pulled up in front of Anthony’s* school to drop him off, Tom could feel Anthony’s eyes on him while he called the school nurse’s office. On the drive in, Anthony told Tom, a youth worker from his college access program, that he had thought about taking a lot of pills the night before in an attempt to “not wake up,” and he agreed to get help today.  The nurse thanked Tom, and met Anthony just inside the school’s front door. From there, Anthony was referred to the emergency services he needed to address the mental health crisis he was experiencing at that time.

Thankfully, Anthony had a trusted adult that he could talk to, and as a result, he found support in a moment of crisis. When Tom began this youth work position, he thought it would be about tutoring and helping students manage application deadlines. He did not anticipate that it would involve becoming one of the only trusted adults in a young person’s life, or that he would have such an impact on the overall wellbeing of the youth in his program. Over many months, Tom and Anthony developed a supportive and trusting relationship, which is a basic function of any youth worker’s role. For this reason, youth work as a prevention and intervention tool for adolescents is fundamentally public health work.

Public health is focused on prevention of adverse outcomes such as unintended teen pregnancy, self-harm, suicide, gun violence, obesity, and substance abuse or the promotion of healthy habits. Youth-serving programs achieve these public health outcomes by focusing on skill building and character development that supports young people to make positive choices. A college access program, like the one that introduced Tom and Anthony, can have the explicit goal of seeing students get admitted to college. However, at its core, the program works to foster safe and trusting relationships between young people and youth workers. And, students like Anthony get the opportunity to hone skills such as self-advocacy and communication, which served Anthony well by allowing him to connect with the mental health supports he needed to avoid a crisis.

This approach to youth work is called positive youth development, and it is an intentional, prosocial approach that engages youth in their communities in a way that is constructive and recognizes and enhances young people’s strengths.** A narrow focus on avoiding problems would not actually prepare a young person for life’s challenges. By providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, creating safe spaces, and developing a sense of belonging and membership, youth workers play an integral role in creating the conditions for young people to be healthy and thrive.

Whether it’s an arts program, a sports league, a jobs program, or any one of dozens of other youth centered spaces, one thing is clear: youth work is about ensuring that young people meet their physical and social needs and build the competencies necessary to succeed in adolescence and into adult life. According to the National Academy of Medicine, the mission of public health is to, “fulfill society’s interest in assuring conditions in which people can be healthy.” At the end of the day, that’s exactly what Tom did. So much of public health is prevention work, and youth workers are on the ground every day supporting young people to develop the competencies they need to avoid risky behavior or to bounce back when they falter. For that reason, Tom and every other youth worker in the field are public health heroes.

*Names have been changed

**Advancing Youth Development. AED/Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, Wash. DC, 1996