What Type of Messages Motivate Homeless Youth to Meet Their Health Needs?

A nurse takes a young woman's blood pressure

Homeless Youth Seeking Health and Life-Meaning through Popular Culture and the Arts” (abstract). Malaika Mutere, Adeline Nyamathi, Leo Hobaica, Glenn Availa, Ashley Chrstiani, and Jeff Sweat. Child & Youth Services, Vol. 35, Issue 3 (2014).

What it’s about: Mutere and her colleagues wanted to explore how popular culture, media, and the arts affect homeless young people’s decisions to seek out health care and take other steps to reach their goals. The researchers held focus groups with 54 homeless 18- to 25-year-olds who were staying in shelters or getting services in Los Angeles County, California. All of the participants had recently used drugs. They answered questions about how the media, their experience with adults, and other personal factors helped or hurt their ability to meet their health needs.

Why read it: There have been conflicting findings about teens, including those experiencing homelessness, and drug use. Some research shows that teens may be more likely to use drugs when they have low self-esteem and don’t have a strong sense of self-efficacy, or the belief that they can control their own circumstances. While homeless youth are at high risk for drug use, one study of homeless youth found that they had above-average levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy. Still another found that youth who accepted themselves and the homeless lifestyle were more likely than those who did not to drink and use drugs to excess. This study reveals some young people's thoughts on their own drug use and the types of messages they say help them to make decisions about their health.

Biggest takeaways from the research: One of the most common themes was participants’ distrust of “dominant, adult-led culture,” including health care messages and services put out by media outlets and organizations. A large number of focus group members criticized media campaigns warning teens not to use marijuana, for example, because they said the drug helps them cope with stress and depression.

Youth recommended messages that share facts and graphics about hard drug use and alcohol and the effect drugs and drinking have on teenagers' bodies. Information should reflect the reality of being homeless, youth said, and be available in public places such as parks, bathroom stalls, and clinics. Participants also talked about the benefits of getting their health messages through videos and photos versus written materials or the radio. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many youth said they preferred to work with peer mentors rather than seeing a therapist. Therapists and adult mentors can be effective in some cases, they add, when they have their own story of hardship to share or when they take the time to really listen to a young person’s needs and ideas. Similarly, the authors encourage readers to hire homeless youth to create and market artistic, culturally relevant health messages for their peers. This strategy improves young people's ability to relate to the finished product, the authors say, and also gives youth who create the marketing campaigns valuable job experience.

Additional references: Visit our library to learn more about adolescent health and substance abuse.

Some of the homeless youth in the focus groups were participating in the California Institute for the Arts' Community Arts Partnership creative writing program that was run at one of the sites, "My Friend's Place."

NCFY offers an overview of screening and assessment tools for measuring adolescents’ substance abuse and independent living skills. Or, read here to discover ideas for youth engagement as a path to well-being.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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