Youth Today: Supports, Opportunities and Services

By Karen Pittman, October 2000

I like to coin phrases — simple ways of saying things that help people remember important concepts. Years ago I coined, “Supports, Opportunities and Services,” or S.O.S. Young people need steady doses of all three. They need services: Healthcare, housing, transportation, crisis intervention, instruction, financial assistance, public spaces — things provided for them. They need supports:

Guidance, nurturing, discipline, standards, mentoring, connections, recognition — things done with them. They need opportunities: Jobs, organizational and community roles, educational options, recreational and vocational choices — things they can do themselves.

Slogans are needed, however, because it seems to take some advanced thinking to see that young people in vulnerable circumstances need all three ingredients. The American tendency is to offer opportunities to those deemed ready, supports to those with promise and services to those with problems. The seeming efficiency of this triage protocol keeps it in use despite overwhelming evidence that such a linear approach to working with young people usually doesn’t work.

Case in point, Rosa, 24. High school graduate. Some college courses. Articulate, warm, spiritual, good people skills. Manic-depressive. Organizational, temporal and perceptual difficulties. Sporadic employment history. Relationship dependent. Goals: A steady job with benefits; a place to live separate from family; a boyfriend with fewer problems than she has. Status: Just checked out of a hospital mental health unit after her second episode of suicidal behavior in three years. Status just before last incident: New job (restaurant, with benefits), new living arrangement (subsidized housing), new boyfriend (younger, unemployed, unstable).

Since my husband and I adopted Rosa at age four, she’s gotten our support. But parental support sometimes isn’t enough. We have never been completely successful at finding and keeping the right mix of services, opportunities and supports. How does the same child get recommended for special education and offered a slot in a prestigious summer camp for the gifted? How is the young adult who is diagnosed as depressed and with low performance skills expected to handle her own medical battles with the insurance company? How is this young person who is deemed too high functioning for assisted living, too educated for Job Corps and too employable for medical assistance, handle being told she should just work part time to reduce stress? How does the young person with a psychiatrist, a psychologist and concerned parents manage not to take her meds for three months?

Easy: Too few services (except for crisis services), and those come without assistance or continuity. Too few opportunities (except for questionable ones), and those come without assistance or continuity. And too few supports in the form of people who can provide all the resources noted above, who are willing to take an outcome rather than an hourly rate approach to helping. Of these three, supports are the most critical and the most elusive.

After three years of concerted trying, we lucked out. The social worker assigned to the case at the hospital really took it on. She took a long history. She worked to understand the options and dead ends found in the past. She made phone calls. She recommended strategies. She said there really was a network of ongoing help that Rosa could tap into that wouldn’t expire in 30 days without two-week renewal requests. She understood the dilemmas. She offered to keep working on leads after Rosa was discharged. She seemed determined to ensure that there was more in place for Rosa after hospitalization than before. In short, she cared — but there was more.

At IYF-US (now the Forum for Youth Investment), we talk about the importance of young people developing five key assets: Competence, confidence, character, connectedness and a need to contribute. My recent brush with deepened services reminded me of the importance of these assets among the adults who provide them. If those adults are not competent, confident, connected, caring and committed to contributing to improving the lives of those they touch, young people lose out on the services and opportunities they need to succeed.
Pittman, K. (2000, October). "Supports, Opportunities and Services." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
October 1, 2000
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