Keeping young people safe, vibrant and sober is one of the main objectives of Mercer Island’s Healthy Youth Initiative.
Situated within the city’s Youth and Family Services Department (YFS), the initiative is now fully funded by two federal grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Sober Truth on Prevention Underage Drinking (STOP Act) and Partnership for Success, which focuses on mental health promotion and underage substance use prevention.
YFS project coordinator Rachel Montgomery said Healthy Youth Initiative is “really well-funded to help pivot in this time of crisis. The HYI can address current, new challenges, but also continue building on the ones that existed before COVID.” Montgomery said that through Positive Community Norms campaigning, Island youth can see that although most of their peers aren’t engaging in that behavior, it remains a concern.
One new challenge that has surfaced during the pandemic is isolation, said YFS administrator Tambi Cork. She’s deeply concerned about mental health across all ages, but particularly with young adults in the 18- to 24-year-old range.
“That’s always been a demographic we’ve had some concerns in lack of access to. They launch into their adulthood and they leave the Island and they’re maybe on a college campus or off starting a career and so we don’t have the same amount of wrap-around support for them,” Cork said.
According to a recent city brief, one ongoing concern is availability of substances of abuse — namely vape products — and the media that targets youth to make online purchases.
“Recent Mercer Island data finds that the vast majority of Island youth are not using vape or e-cigarettes. The HYI supports keeping and improving upon this hopeful health metric,” the brief notes.
Cork said they are also concerned that the Island’s rates of alcohol binge drinking in grades 10-12 and into young adulthood continue to rise higher than the state average. She said it’s somewhat consistent with what is seen in affluent communities across the nation.
Concerns about students
Mercer Island Police Department Chief Ed Holmes said that like most high schools across the country, Mercer Island has some challenges with some students using illegal drugs.
“Our school resource officer works closely with the counselors from Youth and Family Services, to include the drug and alcohol counselor to get the students the help and support they need. As you can imagine, everything is very different now during this pandemic since students are not physically at the high school,” he said.
Twice a year, the city coordinates with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to participate in the nationwide drug “take back” day. Montgomery said those events are a “preventative measure to make sure that youth are never getting the opportunity to progress into prescription medication use or misuse.”
Students are also provided information through YFS school counseling about the risks, consequences and harms about abusing substances. Last spring, HYI brought the first virtual pilot of The Incredible Years program to the Island. Developed at the University of Washington, the program promotes social, emotional and academic competence before a child becomes an adult, its site reads.
“We’re not just hearing feedback and digesting it. We’re processing it as a group and coming back with viable, relevant strategies that work on Mercer Island. So for me, I feel encouraged and motivated,” Montgomery said.
Cork said she is proud to be involved with the HYI and added that the Island is fortunate to have secured the funding to bolster YFS’s mission to support community members, especially during the pandemic. They have a well-informed prevention staff and experienced treatment staff in their corner.
“It’s a fairly unusual model, and to have the city government so engaged in behavioral health support is unique and powerful,” she said. “It allows us to interface with first responders and the school district and be collaborative and wrap around kids and families that are struggling in a way that’s not always possible in other places.”
The Mercer Island’s Healthy Youth Initiative (HYI) is a progression of the Mercer Island’s Communities that Care Coalition, which was launched in 2005. It brings together community members from all walks of life and professions who are “motivated to respond to underage substance use and engage the community in collaborative problem solving,” according to the initiative’s website. For more information, visit www.mihealthyyouth.com/healthy-youth-initiative