Expanding Focus from Youth Mental Health to Youth Development, Southwest Regional Council Staff Reflect on the Process
Over the past six years, the Southwest Regional Council has been committed to youth mental health. Over time, through research and by connecting with local grant partners and community experts, the Council has expanded its understanding of the ever-evolving and diverse youth well-being needs in the region and the programs and solutions that most effectively address these needs. As a result, the Council’s focus has evolved from youth mental health, specifically, to youth well-being and development, more generally.
Initial Investment in Youth Mental Health
In 2016, the Southwest Regional Council convened youth-serving organizations that focus on mental and behavioral health. From this convening, it decided to focus on addressing existing behavioral health issues in youth and identified four organizations for recommended funding. The programs funded include suicide prevention programs in school, wrap-around services for youth and families and increased staffing for school counselors.
As these multi-year grants neared completion, the Council broadened its focus area to youth well-being and sought to support creative approaches to youth development and resiliency through upstream initiatives. This also included an accompanying shift to a nimble, one-year funding approach to its grant recommendations, in an effort to address ongoing challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing that youth well-being is impacted by a multitude of individual and environmental factors, the Council felt it would be necessary to again reach out to the community to better understand how to approach this broad mission and to maximize the impact of its potential grant recommendations.
The Council members connected with a variety of community mental health experts and stakeholders to learn more about the regional mental health landscape and identify gaps in funding where the Council could make an impact.
Identifying Priorities for Expanded Focus
After surveying the region for the greatest youth well-being needs and potential grant partners that support these efforts, the Council sought to focus its grant making on filling funding gaps and supporting existing programming in the region. The Council gained a new understanding of the types of initiatives and interventions that impact youth mental health, leading it to seek funding opportunities that support the whole youth rather than focusing on only improving negative outcomes. While it was clear there were a variety of needs, the Council agreed upon the below priorities to guide its funding recommendations in support of youth well-being:
- Preventative mental and behavioral health care and programming that supports foundational youth resiliency, confidence-building, self-efficacy and sense of identity;
- Holistic, experiential programming to support youth, particularly middle school and underserved populations, through agriculture, sports and outdoor recreation, STEM activities and arts, as well as character development, anti-vaping and anti-bullying programming;
- Programs that increase accessibility (e.g., providing transportation) to traditional or experiential youth well-being services;
- Projects or programs that are not already heavily funded by government and institutional funding mechanisms and/or receiving federal/state pandemic relief assistance; and
- Youth programs that are collaborative in nature or open to collaboration with other regional programs
Through this process, Council members found value in connecting with community members working on these efforts, learning about existing partnerships among mental health organizations, witnessing the effects of equity, diversity and inclusion conversations in the region and hearing more about other community developments on issues such as affordable housing. As a result of this information-gathering and priority-setting process, the Council recommended 22, one-year grants to organizations across Southwest Colorado for need-based scholarships to after school and recreational summer programming, in-school resiliency programs, conflict resolution efforts and experiential services. Thayer Tutt, Southwest Regional Trustee, said “This Council’s commitment to supporting youth in the region has opened up creative ways to make a difference, and we hope will impact young people positively, and earlier in their lives.”
At its most recent meeting, the Council decided to once again broaden the scope of its focus area to include overall youth development—encapsulating organizations that address social, physical and emotional factors that ultimately impact youth well-being. As the Council looks to its 2023 funding cycle, it will continue to identify and support organizations that take a holistic approach to youth development and that build resiliency, confidence, a sense of belonging and identity, healthy decision-making skills and overall good mental health in the youth of Southwest Colorado.