Dr. Tamar Mendelson, Director of the Center for Adolescent Health (CAH), and Dr. Kristin Mmari, CAH evaluation lead, recently published a report on opportunity youth as part of a supplement issue of the journal Public Health Reports entitled, “From Local Action to National Progress on 5 Major Health Challenges: The Bloomberg American Health Initiative” (November/December, 2018).
As members of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, Mendelson and Mmari lead a work group on risks to adolescent health, which has a core focus on addressing the issue of opportunity youth, adolescents 16-24 who are not working or in school.
Earlier in January, Mendelson, Mmari, and other members of the Bloomberg Initiative, met with the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams. As Surgeon General, Dr. Adams develops reports on critical public health issues, and his office publishes Public Health Reports to inform the American public how to live safer and healthier lives.
While all focal areas of the Bloomberg Initiative were discussed at the meeting, two key topics were highlighted: opportunity youth and the opioid epidemic. Mendelson and Mmari discussed applying a public health approach to reduce the number of opportunity youth in the U.S. by improving coordinated data systems, consolidated services and funding, and scaling up interventions.
Opportunity youth are at higher risk than their more connected peers for health problems, criminal behaviors, incarceration, chronic unemployment, and early death. Mendelson and Mmari say opportunity youth are deserving of more attention by public health practitioners because there are serious societal economic and health costs if the young people continue to struggle with unemployment and financial hardship as they age.
“He was really engaging. He really cares about health equity, and community health and wellness,” Mendelson said. One of Adams’ top priorities is community health and economic prosperity, so Mendelson and Mmari particularly emphasized in their presentation how opportunity youth are linked to the economy.
In particular, Mendelson and Mmari highlighted that opportunity youth have been estimated to cost $55 billion per year in lost tax revenues alone. They also discussed how opportunity youth are less likely to own a home, have lower earnings, report worse physical and mental health, and are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system compared to their more connected peers. By investing in opportunity youth, it is possible not only to reduce these economic costs but also to benefit entire communities and contribute to the reduction of health inequities.
In an interview with The Hub, Mmari called for early intervention, “If kids aren’t showing basic language acquisition… or if we know parents are in jail or abusing substances, these are clear signs they need extra support,” she said. By adolescence, kids may already be on a path to disconnection.
Mendelson and Mmari are excited to further develop a relationship with the Surgeon General’s Office and increase awareness of opportunity youth as a public health issue. “It was really encouraging. The whole group left feeling enthusiastic,” Mendelson said.