In coalition work, recognizing the value of youth voices not only empowers the next generation, but also ensures that prevention efforts will be relevant, relatable, and responsive to the needs and challenges faced by young people today. When it comes to tackling substance use and mental health related issues, employing CADCA Youth Leadership’s “youth-led, adult-guided” model, can lead to greater outcomes and more effective strategies tailored to a coalition’s specific community needs. North River Prevention Partners (NRPP) recently started their own youth coalition and have implemented programs to break down communication barriers and open up the dialogue between families, peers, and community leaders alike.
One of the most effective ways NRPP has fostered these conversations is by hosting biannual “Let’s Talk” events, which unites students, their parents, and sector leaders to have open and honest discussions. During these events, which are open to the community, participants are separated into small groups and provided suggested topics. At regular intervals, the groups are rotated so that everyone gets a chance to speak and hear each other’s thoughts. Youth are able to lead discussions on what’s going on at their school campuses, substance use trends they’re noticing among peers, and a snapshot of what it’s like to be a teenager in today’s world. At the end, each group’s notetaker shares some of the key insights they learned to open it up to the whole group and make everyone a part of the discussion.
“Everything is really on the table for them to talk about. Our job as a coalition, and as parents in the room, is to listen and provide guidance and feedback based on these conversations, as well as identify ways that we can provide better support,” shared Rose Jean, NRPP’s Program Coordinator. “It’s a free space where we ‘leave all stigma at the door’, so youth can comfortably express themselves and share their perspectives. We also invite policy enforcers within the community to attend, so they can return to their specific groups with a broadened understanding of how to make the community better for our teens.”
“Because there are various backgrounds and cultures in the room, some of these conversations might not be easy for the kids to have with their parents without this format being provided to them. We’ve received wonderful feedback from families about how eye-opening these events have been, and I often have parents coming up to me afterwards saying how much they learned and benefitted from taking the time to show the youth that they matter, their voices matter, and that we’re here to listen.”
Another way that NRPP is supporting open dialogues is by training their youth to become Teen Mental Health First Aiders. Through this program, students are able to learn about healthy coping mechanisms, how to speak to their peers who are experiencing mental health challenges, and what community resources are available. Since youth who may be struggling with mental health challenges may find it easier to relate to and open up to a peer of theirs, as opposed to an adult, this training is a great opportunity to create more allies and support within their community.
“For some of our youth, this program might be the first time they are talking about serious mental health issues with an adult. In our community, some of these topics can feel taboo or startling to bring up, but by the end of the training, we see a transformation in how comfortable our youth are in speaking about their experiences honestly,” said Rose. “We also make sure that the youth who become certified know that they’re not in it alone after the training. They can always find ample support from us to guide them through any situation they might encounter.”
Rose concluded, “These efforts have been really valuable to our coalition and community as a whole. Youth play an important role in our prevention efforts, because at the end of the day, they’re ultimately going to be the ones shaping our future. Our role is to guide them and give them the tools they need to not only get by, but more importantly, flourish – and a big part of that is removing stigma and encouraging open conversations that lead to creating real and lasting change.” NRPP looks forward to hosting more events and trainings in the future that empower youth to share their voice and become leaders within their communities.