The recently reported funding of Sagadahoc County’s Maine Working Communities Challenge grant, focusing on youth mental health, is a welcome opportunity and such funding could be of benefit to communities throughout Maine. The Maine Resilience Building Network applauds the funding designed to address youth hopelessness in the county. Across Maine, we can do better to connect with our youth in communities. We must do better.

Maine was facing a youth mental health crisis, even as we headed into the pandemic. In the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, 41 percent of middle school students and 43 percent of high school students said they don’t feel they matter in their community. The numbers are even higher among high school students who identify as LGBTQ, 63 percent saying they don’t feel they matter. Twenty percent of middle schoolers and 16 percent of high schoolers said they have seriously considered suicide. Without that sense of connectedness, youth lack a key protective factor for hopelessness, suicide, anxiety, depression and substance use. The hopelessness can spread beyond the individual and spread through social communities.

In response to this data, the Maine Resilience Building Network initiated the Cultivating Mattering for Maine Youth initiative to advance social connectedness and mattering for Maine youth. As part of the initiative, in 2021 the network invited community members and organizations to join Community Conversations on Cultivating Youth Mattering in Maine’s nine public health districts. Nearly 500 people attended the virtual meetings, with participants working directly with youth in nonprofit organizations, public health, public safety and education. Participants shared what is working in their communities, the needs they see and opportunities to connect.

Two sentiments echoed across all nine Community Conversations:

• Safe Spaces – Spaces created with, by and for youth, designed for authentic engagement and youth contribution, and considerations for LGBTQ and other youth who may feel disconnected.

• Small Acts – Systems can begin with small changes in language and norms; small acts of recognition and representation can have an impact, and every community member has a role to play.

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The energy and enthusiasm generated by this series of Community Conversations was immediately apparent, as participants began taking concrete steps to increase youth mattering in their communities and organizations. To address mattering at the local level, it is crucial for communities to bring youth into the conversation, with particular attention paid to youth not empowered.

To truly elevate youth mattering, communities, governments, schools, businesses and organizations must commit to change systems and policies to create environments where youth can thrive. By working to create safe spaces and engaging in connection, every person in every community can have a positive impact on the youth around them.

But small acts alone are not enough. This requires addressing explicit and implicit biases as well as systemic challenges such as homelessness, lack of access to transportation and inequity of resources. Communities and policymakers need to shift systems and culture. Across communities, we must invest in primary prevention strategies that improve the health and well-being of our youth. These investments are not just monetary. Individuals, organizations and systems must invest time, energy and caring into ensuring that every youth in Maine understands how much they matter to their community.

How do we begin to build a more connected community where youth feel they matter? It’s up to us, not just to “make kids more resilient” but also to ensure that all of the supports are there so that resilience is the supported, easier option. To truly elevate youth mattering, communities, governments, schools, businesses and organizations must commit to change systems and policies to create environments where youth can thrive. With the input of youth voices, the Maine Resilience Building Network is raising awareness in communities about the benefits of youth connectedness and positive experiences.

The network is making a long-term commitment to this through Cultivating Mattering for Maine Youth. As a neighbor and community member, we all have a role to play. Are you ready to invest in our youth? Visit maineresilience.org for more information and support to get started.


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