Youth Assets

Globally, youth empowerment programs promote resiliency factors, which allow minority youth to respond to — and hopefully overcome — major challenges in their lives, including the social determinants of health. Social factors like poor education, lack of health insurance, dysfunctional social and family support systems, poverty, language barriers, teen pregnancy, and other problems can undermine good health.

The Search Institute developed the Developmental Asset Profile (DAP), which identifies 40 key assets of healthy adolescent development and divided them into external and internal assets. External assets fall into the four categories: Support, Empowerment, Boundaries and Expectations, and Constructive Use of Time. Internal assets are categorized into Commitment to Learning, Social Competencies, Positive Values, and Positive Identity. While YEP models use the DAP as well as other asset constructs, all of OMH’s Youth Empowerment Programs help minority youth address asset categories to develop youth resiliency and protective factors that mitigate against the negative effects of the social determinants of health. Data from the Search Institute (Figure 1-6) show the average asset total of youth between grades 6 and 12 averaged from a sample of nearly 150,000 youth from 202 communities across the country in 2003. Assets levels typically decline during middle school and early high school years, with some recovery noted by grade 12. The data suggest that as youth face the challenges of maturing and gaining their independence during adolescence, the assets from which they can draw support and guidance, diminish through those critical growth years. Accordingly, stabilizing the normal downward trend in adolescent asset levels, and then actually building the number of assets with youth empowerment programs, is a vital component of promoting health.

Two required areas of focus for OMH’s YEP are categorized as “Education” and “Support Networks.” Both of these requisite elements address many of the external and internal assets deemed necessary for youth development and resiliency.

Education is viewed as an important health factor in several ways. The Commission to Build a Healthier America found adults who did not graduate from high school are 2.5 times more likely to say they are not in very good health and more likely to be unemployed. Students with higher grades are far less likely to engage in unhealthy or risky behaviors (Figure 1-7). Conversely, those with poorer grades are at the highest risk for poor health in a stepwise fashion linked to grade performance. Substantially higher rates of alcohol and drug use, risky sexual behaviors, a tendency to carry weapons, and lower rates of physical activity all correlate with lower academic achievement (Figure 1-7). Moreover, research shows an additional four years of education lowers a person’s five-year mortality rate and decreases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. The YRBSS dramatically shows the correlation between academic achievement and healthy behaviors in youth.

Youth support networks are required in OMH’s YEP at multiple levels. Family, community, and educational support are essential factors and, indeed, some of the most important factors in predicting health. Two YEPs have faith-based organizations involved in YEP programming, which reinforces a positive value system and provides an additional type of support network.

Many studies have shown a link between strong personal assets developed in youth and healthy behaviors. A variety of asset paradigms categorizing youth resiliency factors have been used to study risk behaviors. In 2010, the Search Institute provided results of a survey of over 89,000 youth between grades 6 and 12 from communities all across the country. The data suggest that the more assets youth possess the less likely they are to engage in four different patterns of high-risk behavior including alcohol abuse, violence, illicit drug abuse and sexual activity (Figure 1-8). Additionally, more youth assets correlates with increased positive behaviors and attitudes like leadership, good health, school success, and valuing diversity (Figure 1-9). Other studies have linked the number of youth assets to the reduction of risky sexual behaviors. The more youth assets, the higher the percentages of reported abstinence, birth control use, and the delay of first sexual intercourse. Clearly, the presence of youth resiliency factors and personal assets in an adolescent’s life provide protection against a variety of risky behaviors, and effectively promotes healthy lifestyles in youth.