Opinion: Utah’s teens are struggling. One school program is saving lives.

Teen Centers are an investment in the future of Utah and those who will soon lead it.

(Photo courtesy of The Policy Project) Teen Centers “provide valuable assistance to teenagers grappling with mental health issues, family problems, homelessness, substance abuse, bullying, and other difficulties,” writes Sidni Shorter, a board member at The Policy Project.

A chain-smoking teenager is a horrifying thought, but it’s also one with a relatively straightforward fix. We warn them about the risks and tell them to stop. Policy measures have also been put into place, with laws that ban youth-focused tobacco marketing and taxes that make smoking an expensive habit. Yet studies have shown that the effects of loneliness and social isolation can be as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, impacting a person’s overall health and, importantly, their mental health.

But addressing the issue of teenage mental health is much more complicated. Teen Centers, which are now based in dozens of schools across the state, can help.

The teenage years can be challenging and complex, with various pressures including tough academic workloads, after-school jobs and activities, new boundaries to set, questions about the influence of social media, and of course, fluctuating hormones. It takes a lot to navigate this phase. Adults who care for these teens often also struggle with their own mental health issues, adding to the challenges faced by families.

Beyond the reports of loneliness that began and increased even after the pandemic, Utah teens face a number of mental health challenges and risk factors. The 2021 Utah Adolescent Health Report found that more than one in five students has seriously considered suicide, with 18% reporting they have made a suicide plan, and 41.5% saying they felt sad or hopeless. Children in Utah also face mental health problems at a rate that’s 14% higher than the national average. The number of Utah teens who have experienced a major depressive episode has doubled over the last decade.

A growing number of K-12 students in Utah are also facing significant challenges in meeting their basic needs. There has been a 9.6% increase in students experiencing homelessness from 2022 to 2023, with 13,049 Utah students classified as homeless and lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence in 2023. One in three Utah students are economically disadvantaged and qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort from families, communities, and policymakers to ensure that all students have the support they need to thrive. One initiative spearheaded by The Policy Project is the creation of Teen Centers across Utah. Teen Centers are physical facilities in Utah schools that provide food pantries, laundry facilities and showers to meet the basic needs of students. The Centers are also staffed by adults who are there to provide resources: help with homework, social work and family advocacy, and connections to other community resources. Simply having a trusted person to connect with can often prevent and alleviate mental health issues. The Teen Centers provide valuable assistance to teenagers grappling with mental health issues, family problems, homelessness, substance abuse, bullying and other difficulties.

Since The Policy Project’s work beginning in 2022, $15 million was secured from the Utah Legislature to fund these centers, and $3 million was raised by private donors. All $18 million of these funds were distributed by 2024 for construction and opening, showing how great the need is for this type of resource. More than 70 schools have been awarded funding, in all areas and corners of Utah.

With the factors affecting teens’ mental health ranging from financial to social, these Teen Centers are and will become an essential part of the educational landscape in Utah. The ultimate goal of these centers is to help teenagers succeed in all areas of their lives. They act as a conduit and a connector, linking teens to various resources and opportunities beyond academics. By providing a safe and supportive environment, Teen Centers help teenagers cope, address and overcome obstacles and barriers. They offer resources and support that help them navigate challenges and prepare them for a successful future.

Teen Centers are an investment in the future of Utah and those who will soon lead it.

(Photo courtesy of The Policy Project) Sidni Shorter

Sidni L. Shorter, PsyD, is president and CEO of the Utah Black Chamber of Commerce and a board member of The Policy Project. As a servant leader, Sidni prioritizes relationship building and authentic engagement. An advocate for change and a social entrepreneur, her career and efforts are directed towards her passion for entrepreneurs and business leaders in their pursuit of access to affordable capital with growth, progress and just outcomes encompassing diversity, equity and inclusion as the goal.

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