PTTC Post Article - October 2022

Elevating Youth Voices

Young people, aged 15 to 24 make up about 16% of the world’s population. By 2030, it is projected that the number of youth will have grown about 7% to nearly 1.3 billion  (United Nations, 2022). We have the responsibility and the privilege to provide services, opportunities, and engagement for and with the youth population.
Power of Youth Text

Prevention professionals and prevention and community organizations have identified children and youth as target populations for the provision of services and have been successfully delivering evidence-based programming to these populations for decades. The work does not stop there. Prevention and wellness programs have often involved young people in the delivery of services through focus groups, needs assessments, peer training, and other youth-led activities but not in system design and complex problem-solving. A paradigm shift is occurring to not only provide services for youth but to involve youth in every stage of the prevention process. Engaging youth will infuse substance use prevention with authentic experience and wisdom for decreasing risk and increasing protective factors. Recognizing the power of “working with” in addition to “providing for”, will increase the number of youth interested in becoming a part of the behavioral health workforce and improve the efficacy and reach of prevention and wellness initiatives (United Nations 2020). Prevention professionals and organizations are embracing this paradigm shift and are looking for ways to increase youth engagement and involvement in improving youth well-being and substance use prevention.

Voices of Youth

The Office of Prevention Innovation at the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) is developing a Voices of Youth initiative to bring authentic youth engagement to substance use prevention. This Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) program is being developed using a human-centered design approach to youth engagement and problem-solving. Human-centered design is a problem-solving technique that puts those you are solving problems for at the center of the problem-solving, instead of being merely the recipients or end-users of the solution (Landry, 2020).

Voices of Youth is designed to engage youth at the inception of the problem-solving process and involve them in every phase throughout. Youth voices will be elevated and involved in every stage of the process including problem identification,  program development, engagement, service delivery, and evaluation.

The Voices of Youth Initiative will use a two-pronged approach, internal and external, to promote youth engagement. As an internal focus, CSAP plans to bring youth more integrally into the work of CSAP and SAMHSA. Formally engaging youth as consultants, contractors, interns, and members in the National Advisory Council, youth will be involved internally to shape and solve youth-focused issues in the field of prevention and to promote positive youth development and emotional well-being.

Externally, CSAP is partnering with several organizations including Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA)  and Health Organizations Students of America (HOSA) to provide opportunities for leadership development, workforce development, networking, and broader youth involvement. CSAP hopes to work with traditional, formal, and grassroots youth organizations to support youth engagement and to include organizational knowledge and experience to provide a bi-directional,  two-way information and resource-sharing collaboration. Your organization can connect with Voice of Youth to share resources and opportunities for furthering youth engagement.
Find out more

Increasing Youth Engagement

Increasing youth engagement in your organization or community is a relationship-building process, not a single event. Authentic youth engagement will benefit children, youth, parents, families, and your organization. There are many resources available to help your organization engage more fully with youth.

Youth Engagement Resources

Getting Candid - National Council for Mental Wellbeing
The Getting Candid message guide and toolkit equips youth-serving providers and organizations with the tools and resources necessary to support meaningful prevention messaging. This toolkit includes messaging on youth substance use prevention, tip sheets, social media graphics and shareables, videos, webinars, interactive worksheets, and an educational course.

Substance Use Prevention Resources
The National Council website has a compilation of substance use prevention resources to share and transfer key learnings to accelerate future innovations on behalf of youth.

Youth-Adult Partnership Guide
This guide includes guidance and tools for youth-serving organizations that are striving to create a youth-centered culture to support youth mental well-being.

The purpose of this guide is to provide youth-serving organizations with substance use prevention messaging and guidance on the effective utilization of this messaging. is the U.S. government website that helps you create, maintain, and strengthen effective youth programs. Included are youth facts, funding information, and tools to help you assess community assets, generate maps of local and federal resources, search for evidence-based youth programs, and keep up-to-date on the latest, youth-related news.

Transitional Age Youth Webinar Series
The Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network (ATTC) partnered with NORC, at the  University of Chicago and the Association for Multidisciplinary Education and Research in Substance use and Addiction (AMERSA) to bring a series of virtual events examining special topics for working with adolescents and transitional age youth that relate to substance use and mental health conditions. The goal of the webinar series is to provide evidence-based and cutting-edge information on substance use prevention and intervention to an interprofessional audience of behavioral health practitioners for working with adolescents and transitional-age youth (18 - 25).

Youth Engagement Initiative - McCain Centre | CAMH
The goal of the Youth Engagement Initiative is to increase meaningful collaboration between youth stakeholders and professionals by providing the youth voice at all levels of projects and organizations. The facilitators also engage in conversations with other youth with lived experience in order to provide more diverse perspectives.

Researchers at The Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child Youth & Family Mental Health in Toronto have developed guidelines to more effectively engage youth in meaningful ways in mental health research for the benefit of the youth and the research.  The guidelines have not been formally validated but have been developed using extensive background literature, the experience of the youth themselves, and a team of researchers with experience in engaging youth in research. It is believed that following these general guidelines can increase youth engagement, feasibility, validity, and program value and impact. (Hawke, et al. 2018).

The Dos and Don’ts of Youth Engagement

Authentically value youth expertise
Youth are experts in their own experience and the realities of being a young person.

Recognize diversity among youth
No single youth can represent all youth perspectives. Involve a wide array of youth voices.

Formally recognize contributions
Formally recognize youth by providing wages, an honorarium, references for job or school applications, and/or certificates as appropriate.

Create meaningful opportunities and active participation
Include youth as active team members who authentically contribute to the overall goals of the project and decisions made, while being provided with opportunities to showcase their strengths

Clearly define roles
Clear channels of communication and clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all members of the team or project will prepare all members, including the youth for active participation.

Be transparent and genuine
Youth should be involved in each step of the planning and design process. Project leaders should be transparent with youth about their objectives, goals, expectations, and constraints, as well as genuine about their role and stance regarding the issues on the table, reflecting the values of youth-adult partnerships.

Create youth-friendly spaces
Create youth-friendly work, meeting, and gathering spaces characterized by a safe, welcoming environment, where all parties’ opinions and contributions are respected and valued.

Explain research and project concepts in jargon-free terms
Foster active participation by avoiding terms and jargon that exclude newcomers. Provide definitions and briefings to all members to allow for full participation in the concepts being discussed.

Hold meeting pre-briefs and debriefs
Provide opportunities before and after meetings for the youth members to ask questions, reflect on their participation and contributions, and to build confidence for future participation.

Don’t tokenize or patronize
Listing youth on membership rosters and not allowing full participation or a voice in the discussion is considered tokenized engagement. Dismissing youth contributions or treating youth members as children are forms of patronization. Setting up processes for authentic engagement as outlined above will reduce the risk of tokenization and patronization.

Don’t ask for feedback, then disregard it
Authentic engagement in the decision-making process requires not only asking youth for feedback and giving them time to express their views but taking their feedback into account during discussions, decision-making, and project execution; this means that project timelines must allow for the time to meaningfully consider youth feedback.

Don’t steer youth towards the response you want
Authentically engaging youth in research requires truly listening to their feedback and taking that feedback into account, even if it is not the feedback that the researchers or leaders were seeking or hoping to receive.

Don’t privilege one form of knowledge over another
It is important to recognize that youth are experts of their own experience. By respecting diverse experiences and actively working to minimize the power imbalance, leaders can ensure that all forms of knowledge are leveraged to contribute to the project.

Don’t be closed to new ideas and unwilling to adapt
Youth provide valuable expertise on the experiences and realities of youth, including the ways in which your research or project ideas will be received by the youth you may hope to engage in the future. Youth participation may take projects and services in new directions and can provide creative thinking and problem-solving opportunities (Hawke et. al, 2018).


Cele Fichter-DeSando, MPM
CFD Consulting, LLC
[email protected]


Hawke, L. D., Relihan, J., Miller, J., McCann, E., Rong, J., Darnay, K., Docherty, S., Chaim, G., & Henderson, J. L. (2018). Engaging youth in research planning, design and execution: Practical recommendations for researchers. Health expectations : an international journal of public participation in health care and health policy, 21(6), 944–949.

Landry, Lauren. (2020,December 15,). Re: What is Human-Centered Design? Harvard Business School Online.

United Nations 2020. Handbook on Youth Participation in Drug Prevention Work. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, October 2020.

United Nations, 2022. Global Issues - Who Are the Youth? Accessed September 8, 2022.,of%2015%20and%2024%20years.

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