TA Partnership Newsletter — August/September 2013

Youth Matter!

Sharing the Work of Youth Engagement: A Reflection
By Reyhan Reid

In 2003, the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health focused national attention on a policy agenda for transforming the nation’s mental health service delivery system. I first learned about the Commission’s report, Achieving the Promise: Transforming Mental Health Care in America, in 2007 when I began my work as a TA provider with the TA Partnership. The groundbreaking report called on the mental health system to engage “consumers”—recipients of services—in transforming the mental health system and improving outcomes for individuals living with mental illness.

Many of the ideas we think about when we use language about “youth engagement” or being “youth guided” are reflected in this report. These ideas include

  • increasing consumer participation in “designing and developing the systems of care in which they are involved”;
  • “empowering consumers with more choice related to their services, treatments, and supports”;
  • shifting the burden of coordinating care away from consumers and onto the system;
  • “allowing diverse consumers’ needs and preferences [to] drive the types and mix of services provided”;
  • facilitating “consumer involvement in creating comprehensive state mental health plans”; and
  • providing for significant consumer involvement in “planning, evaluation, research, training, and service delivery.”

Youth engagement specialists are tasked with leading systems of care in the work of engaging young people in systems transformation. Because they are often young adults themselves, many youth engagement specialists draw on their own experiences in the mental health system to connect with youth and help create opportunities for partnership between adults and youth. Without this connection, many transformation efforts would stand little chance of creating meaningful opportunities for young people to help improve child-serving systems.

I have been fortunate to get to know and support many youth engagement specialists over the past six years. I am inspired by the stories of persistence, creativity, connection, and courage they share with me. At the same time, I worry when youth engagement specialists feel disempowered and ineffective. Many battle barriers to creating lasting change in their communities and instead focus solely on creating strong and supportive relationships with youth. This focus takes them away from the difficult work of driving systems change and instead places them in the role of service provider, mentor, or advocate for youth. I believe the youth engagement specialist role is that of a visionary leader, one who helps systems create new possibilities for serving and partnering with youth. There is no perfect one-size-fits-all approach to creating change; however, there are principles to consider in almost any situation. In his article, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” John Kotter offers eight steps to transforming organizations. While Kotter derived these lessons by studying for-profit organizations, several of these steps may have implications for organizations within systems of care:

Step 1: Establish a Sense of Urgency. Examine market and competitive realities. Identify and discuss crises, potential crises, or major opportunities.

Step 2: Form a Powerful Guiding Coalition. Assemble a group with enough power to lead the change effort. Encourage the group to work together as a team.

Step 3: Create a Vision. Create a vision to help direct the change effort. Develop strategies for achieving that vision.

Step 4: Communicate the Vision. Use every vehicle possible to communicate the new vision and strategies. Teach new behaviors by example of the guiding coalition.

Step 5: Empower Others to Act on the Vision. Get rid of obstacles to change. Change systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision. Encourage risk taking and non-traditional ideas, activities, and actions.

Step 6: Plan for and Create Short-Term Wins. Plan for visible performance improvements. Create those improvements. Recognize and reward employees involved in the improvements.

Step 7: Consolidate Improvements Produce More Change. Use increased credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit the vision. Hire, promote, and develop those who can implement the vision. Reinvigorate the process with new projects, themes, and change agents.

Step 8: Institutionalize New Approaches. Articulate the connections between new behaviors and corporate success. Develop the means to ensure leadership development and succession.

Youth engagement specialists need to be empowered to lead change in their organizations and in their systems. I hope to see a time in the near future when more youth engagement specialists function as key leaders of change, with the support necessary to create meaningful shifts in day-to-day practice so that systems of care can truly transform. Let us begin a conversation on how we can make this change happen.

It is time to examine ourselves and identify barriers to empowering youth engagement specialists. When empowered, they can more fully support systems that empower youth to also be agents of change.