Fence and highrise housing

Image credit: peeterv

American health

Connections that matter

Researchers outline a public health plan to reengage disconnected youth, young adults age 16 to 24 who are both out of school and out of work and are at high risk for long-term emotional, behavioral, and health problems

In Baltimore, a program called Thread tries to catch the at-risk kids early. The nonprofit works with struggling high school freshmen, connecting them to volunteers who provide whatever supports are necessary—meals, rides, tutoring, and more—to help them graduate.

Thread is one of several programs highlighted by Johns Hopkins public health researchers in a new report on the population known as "disconnected youth"—or the more hopeful term, "opportunity youth." These are young adults between the ages 16 to 24, who are both out of school and out of work.

So far, public health practitioners haven't fully reckoned with this segment of society, says Bloomberg School of Health professor Kristin Mmari, who co-authored the report.

"We've really ignored them as a broad population group," she says.

Yet their numbers are substantial—an estimated 4.9 million Americans, by last count. And from a public health perspective, the risks for this demographic are considerable—physically, mentally, and socially—if poverty and unemployment persist long-term.

At Johns Hopkins, Mmari and her colleague Tamar Mendelson lead a working group that's actively focused on these issues as part of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative. Their new report was released in advance of the inaugural Bloomberg American Health Summit, which takes place today and tomorrow in Washington, D.C. The summit will bring together innovators and policymakers from around the country who are working to address some of the toughest challenges facing public health in the United States, including the opioid epidemic and gun violence.

At that event, Mmari will lead a breakout session on opportunity youth that will feature three local Baltimore high-schoolers who have been victims of violence, along with the founder of the Baltimore-based Heart Smiles youth empowerment nonprofit.

Mmari emphasizes, however, that "disconnection is not just an urban problem." In fact, in Maryland, young people in rural counties have higher dropout and unemployment rates than their peers in Baltimore City, she says. The report also notes that in the rural South, a particularly high number of young adults—24 percent—can be classified as disconnected.

In their report, the researchers focus on prevention, noting programs that have successfully intervened in the lives of disconnected youth—and those that have tracked quality data. In addition to community-based solutions like Thread (which was co-founded by Hopkins alum Sarah Hemminger) and the Pathways Initiative in San Diego, the researchers tout national efforts like Communities That Care and Opportunity Nation.

Intervention can start as early as preschool, Mmari says.

"There are milestones we can be aware of. 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 says. "Often, it becomes too late, if these kids are in high school and aren't showing up."

The report also includes suggestions for how public health researchers and officials can better collect and analyze their data on disconnected youth, helping shape stronger policies. One of the obstacles, Mmari says, has been the untold numbers of "invisibles" in this age group that fail to show up in the data—for example, youth who are homeless or incarcerated.

Mmari also emphasized the need to unify disparate groups that are all working on issues for at-risk teenagers and young adults.

"One of our goals is to get different folks from different sectors to talk to each other more," Mmari says. "The school people need to talk to the juvenile justice people, and the mental health people, and so on."

The report on opportunity youth is one of five peer-reviewed articles published by Johns Hopkins faculty in advance of this week's summit. The event features several Hopkins researchers, as well as government leaders, policymakers, and public health experts. Participants include businessman and philanthropist Michael R. Bloomberg; Tom Wolf, governor of Pennsylvania; Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood; Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education; and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy. The events will be livestreamed.