It’s been a busy winter for the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force as the nonprofit group begins to comb through data from its biennial youth behavior risk survey.
The survey, administered in October and November to middle school and high school students, is a key part of the task force’s ongoing effort to reduce substance abuse and harmful or risky behavior among the Island youth population.
This year the survey has indicated a rise in teen mental health issues, task force co-coordinator Tiffany Smalley told the Gazette on Monday. Co-coordinator Theresa Manning added that the schools had reached out earlier this year regarding growing concerns about teens and pre-teens, particularly girls, having difficulty managing stress and anxiety.
Next Wednesday, as part of the ongoing effort to address these issues, Dr. Lisa Machoian, author of The Disappearing Girl: Learning the Language of Teenage Depression, will speak and lead a panel discussion at the regional high school. She will also have two faculty training sessions, as well as one for the high school peer outreach group.
Dr. Machoian spoke with Youth Task Force steering committee member Susan Mercier over the summer about coming to the Vineyard to do a program. Mrs. Mercier felt that it would be more helpful in the winter.
“[Winter] is when we really need the support,” Mrs. Manning agreed. Next week’s visit, she said, is “the first swing of getting as many resources as possible here. Lisa is hoping to have an ongoing relationship with our community.”
Recently the Youth Task Force also launched Project Next. Funded by a three-year, $212,800 grant from the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation, Project Next focuses its efforts on the 18 to 26 year-old age group. This is the first time the Youth Task Force has expanded beyond the high school age range.
“There’s a lot of blending socially between older youth, 20-somethings and high schoolers, and that doesn’t really happen in other communities,” Mrs. Manning said. She added that the blending is one of the variables that leads to higher rates of youth alcohol use here.
“The 18 to 26 crowd is an access point for substances, specifically alcohol, for underage drinking,” Ms. Smalley said. “That’s something that everyone knows anecdotally on the Island.”
Part of Project Next involves increased social marketing to help more young adults become aware of what happens if they supply alcohol to minors. But it also seeks to tackle some of the challenges specific to the age group. Again, the group turned to data from its surveys.
“We’re just building up our services,” Mrs. Manning said. The task force has begun offering free career, educational and financial counseling sessions, provided by Sharon Engler and Tom Hallahan, both former university professors, and Richard Leonard, former vice president at the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank.
“We found in all of our surveys there’s a big gap in those type of services, especially affordable or free,” Ms. Smalley said. “There’s definitely a need.”
Ms. Smalley, who is 25, said she reaches out to her own group of friends to help identify the challenges her generation faces.
“There really isn’t a voice for this population on the Island, although we make up a big part of the economy, especially in the summer,” she said.
The counseling is also intended to help young adults work with existing resources, such as affordable housing or the Island health care access program.
“We’re trying to look at where the needs are and where the resources are,” Ms. Smalley said.