Youth survey highlights concerns about teens

The latest Midland County Youth Study shows sharp declines in self-esteem and mental health, but a decrease in substance abuse and an increase in cultural competence among area teens.
Conducted every five years since 2006, the study is the most comprehensive youth study in Michigan, according to Pam Singer, president and CEO of Midland Kid’s First, a co-organizer of the study.
Pam Singer is the president and CEO of Midland Kid's First.
They surveyed 4,389 local students between 6th and 12th grade in October 2021. The study took place over a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic which caused schools to close.  Instruction was moved online for different lengths of time.
The study assesses 40 assets - 20 internal and 20 external - that students need in their lives to reduce their engagement in risk-taking behaviors. The more assets a student has,  the better chance that student has at succeeding, Singer says. 
According to the study, students reported increasing numbers of assets between 2006 and 2016. That changed in 2021. Students reported fewer assets in almost every grade level. 
“Number one, it’s sobering,” Singer says. “Number two, it helps us understand where we need to start working.” 
Internal assets categorized as positive identity - personal power, self-esteem, sense of purpose, and positive view of personal future - all had double-digit declines, the report showed. There also was an 11 percent increase in depression, 5 percent increase in attempted suicide, and a 10 percent increase in eating disorders, according to the report.
“Students with higher assets are significantly less likely to experience depression, attempt suicide, or have eating disorders,” the report states.
Kathryn Tate, president and CEO of The Legacy Center for Community Success in Midland, also a co-organizer of the study, said the positive identity numbers caught her attention most.
 Kathryn Tate is the president and CEO of the Legacy Center for Community Success.
“The thing that surprised me the most was the significant drops in positive identity assets and mental health concerns. I expected drops, but nothing that large,” Tate says. “When we identified the strong relationship between them, it became clear that we need to invest in building positive identity assets, perhaps more than anything else.”

Despite the drop in overall assets, the study identified some bright spots for Midland County teenagers. Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other drug use has decreased significantly since 2006, according to the findings.
There also were double-digits increases in cultural competence, equality and social justice, and caring among respondents. Singer said Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) had been a focus in Midland County across many government, education, and nonprofit groups so it was satisfying to notice the efforts starting to pay off.
“It was really cool for me to see that work reflected in that area,” Singer says. “... It’s been a collaborative community effort to create more of a welcoming community.” 
Tate said those positive results around inclusion stem from simply more awareness.
“I’m so pleased with how much growth we have seen in the social justice and cultural competence assets,” she says. “Our kids are more conscious of caring for all people, which is a testament to the work our community has done in recent years in inclusion and diversity.”
4,389 local students between 6th and 12th grade were surveyed last October.
The Midland County Youth Study concludes with recommendations focused on increasing assets among local young people. That can be accomplished, it states, by building relationships with young people and encouraging relationships with positive peers. It also suggests teens seek out opportunities to serve. 
“Service to others has been found to help people connect with others, build a sense of purpose, and develop one's own self-worth,” the study states, citing the Surgeon General's Advisory, Protecting Youth Mental Health, 2021.

Singer said service projects within religious communities - which saw a significant drop in participation in the latest report - are a great way to build a sense of purpose and self-worth.
“It has the potential to build so many assets,” she notes.
Singer says she is thankful for all the community partners whose financial support made the Midland County Youth Study a reality once again.

“We have some phenomenal data,” she says. 
 Teens in Midland County have been surveyed every five years since 2016.
Overall, the survey sets a direction for schools and youth-serving agencies, Tate said, so they can better meet the needs of kids moving forward.
“It also helps parents and community community members understand how we can best support youth,” Tate says. “Finally, being able to see the data over time shows us what has worked (building Developmental Assets) and helps us understand the impact of the past few years on our local youth.”



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Jeremy Gonsior is a freelance writer, copywriter, K-12 communications professional, and podcaster. Gonsior enjoys traveling, locally-roasted coffee, live music, running, and time spent on the golf course. Follow him on Instagram at @jgonsior and visit his Web site at the