Understanding the needs of Boone County youth is crucial, but taking their own input and recommendations into consideration in addressing those needs is just as important, according to a report released Friday by the Boone County Community Services Department.

The report, titled “Voices for Collective Impact: Honoring Youth Perspectives,” details the findings of a study the department conducted in January. It aimed first to ascertain what young people in the county view as major concerns for themselves and their peers, and what changes they would like to see within their community.

To answer those questions, department staff conducted six focus groups, comprised of 65 Boone County youth ages 12 to 18, at schools and nonprofit organization offices across the county.

The “major” themes yielded from the focus group discussions were education, mental health, violence, identity-based experiences, community-level issues and concrete solutions. Included among the “minor” themes were home issues, social media and drug use.

For each major theme, the report’s authors summarized participants’ thoughts on an issue and provided recommendations. For example, participants frequently discussed their personal experiences of symptoms related to mental health and the ubiquity of mental health needs among themselves and their peers. They also felt their educators should be adept at understanding and discussing mental illness and should play a role in fighting stigmas around it.

“(W)e need to stop just trying to be aware and just like talk about it once. We need to have conversation. It needs to not be just a one-time lesson,” one participant is quoted as saying.

In response, the report recommends efforts to increase “educator comfort and knowledge around mental health topics” and to continue to raise awareness about young people’s mental health needs. That recommendation is echoed in the report’s discussion of issues related to identity-based experiences, which include LGBTQ+ issues, derogatory language and generational differences.

The report recommends promoting equity initiatives for youth to help them understand and navigate their identities, as well as increasing educator training in topics of diversity, inclusion and equity.

“Youth need their educators to understand their lived experiences, especially as those not in privileged groups,” the report stated.

Other key recommendations include investing in community-based interventions around youth violence, promoting community-based policing and expanding workforce development programming. The report stressed the importance of engaging youth in making decisions on how to address the issues that directly impact them.

“As someone who has worked with young people for more than 25 years, I know how insightful they are,” said Leigh Spence, High-Risk Youth Committee chairperson and member of the Boone County Children’s Services Board, in a statement.

“This report provides important views from teens in our community about violence, its effect on them, and what we can do to prevent it.”

The report’s authors said the longer-term objectives of the study are to inform community action planning efforts and to help inform future research studies in the county. They acknowledged that, while much has changed in the wake of COVID-19 since the study was conducted in January, the youth focus group results should still be considered valuable.

“This report can allow key stakeholders to better incorporate the needs of youth in Boone County communities,” said department director Joanne Nelson in a statement. “We are excited to release this report and plan for a better tomorrow for our youth.”

  • State Government reporter, fall 2020. I am a first-year graduate student studying public policy journalism. You can reach me at mokwb@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Galen Bacharier is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. He has reported on higher education, state government and breaking news. Reach him at galenbacharier@gmail.com or on Twitter @galenbacharier.

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