Investing in young people left behind

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I come from Slovenia, a country that has roughly two million inhabitants. We are part of practically every international alliance,including European Union, Council of Europe and NATO and we just turned 25 years old. We were the first country to declare independence from former Yugoslavia and unlike our »brothers« from South-Eastern Europe that suffered much more than us, we faced a shorter, thirteen days independence war.

Slovenia was practically free from armed conflicts from the end of the Second World War, therefore one might think we are a happy country. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Even more, in the region, we have been known for years as a "nation of suicides". Although there is not much data about Slovenians' well-being for the last twenty-five years, we have at least comparative European data for young people from the year 2002 on.

Let's start with a contradiction: In Slovenia almost 90% of 11, 13 and 15 years olds consider their lives good or excellent as per one study, with girls and older young people in particular reporting lower levels of happiness. At the same time more than a quarter of young people in the same age group have regular psycho-somatic symptoms like insomnia, irritability and nervousness. One out of five young people reported being depressed and 15.5 percent of fifteen-years olds had suicidal thoughts in the last year!

Although the body mass index showed we have 1/6 of overweight or obese young people, more than every third young person in this population considered himself or herself overweight or obese – twice as much as in reality. Why so if the before mentioned happiness was rather high? Well, I believe it has something to do with a mix of lack of self-confidence, life skills and the environment. And I am not alone to think this way, so do major public health institutions around Slovenia.

Between the reasons for a worse well-being among young people, I would also like to mention popular culture. When talking to my peers and older friends, who were still born in Yugoslavia, a socialistic country, many mention that we had everything we wanted to have, but we didn't want to have the things we couldn't get.

Nowadays is totally different – we aim really high, we get advertised products we don't need and are presented as ugly and unwanted unless we buy the new formula that will make us look and feel special. Don't get me wrong, I am not advertising the system I was born in as it had its negative sides, but I see the system we live in now as equally broken, especially for the ones most in need, even though I am from a first-world global-north high-income developed country like Slovenia.

Many young people are left behind with one or both parents being unemployed or having at least one parent addicted to alcohol (true story: over nine million young people in Europe live in families with this problem). These young people are the most vulnerable and if not taken seriously, this is a ticking bomb of our society. Studies show that difficult family environments and substance abuse among peers or family, might lead to young people having deviant behaviours later in life themselves, too.

However, ten years ago I established a youth organization called No Excuse Slovenia with two colleagues that deals with this topic. With its program that trains young multipliers into youth leaders and youth workers, it became one of the leading youth organizations in the region. In ten years time we reached over 180 thousand young people on different topics and trained over four hundred peers to become the agents of change – we call ourselves activists.

Our programs are stimulating young people to look outside their window and challenge the world out there. But to do so, they need knowledge and skills and develop certain attitudes towards the society, their peers and themselves. Assertiveness, understanding of peer affiliation and peer pressure, public speaking, media literacy and planning personal professional goals are very important in a young person's life. While multipliers are training others on this topics, they become more accomplished themselves as these are exactly the life skills young people need to develop positive mental health.

However, most of the included young people in our programs will not understand this until later in life as we lead our activities through informal and semi-formal gatherings filled with positive spirit, sense of mutual appreciation and humour.

To add up to that, No Excuse Slovenia runs projects on bullying, gambling and other addictions that make young people understand and deal also with darker topics like depression, self-harm and suicide. In a way it is hard as these topics are not easy to deal with, but the story here is not about the challenges or the organization per se, but the approach it uses to tackle them.

Youth work is around Europe known for preparing young people to become better employable by being active citizens in their community, but less knowingly, youth work gives young people an environment where they can grow and develop personally, where their opinions are considered and their self-confidence is boosted.

A recent study that was led among almost 1700 young people in Slovenia, showed that being part of a youth organization benefited young people in their perceived well-being. Although the study wasn't perfect due to lack of funds, there are many young people around Europe that say that being a part of youth organizations changed their lives to the positive.

Slovenia is small and therefore situations cannot be abstracted so easily around the globe, but one thing is sure everywhere we look: a young person feels much better if he is listened to, his ideas are considered, is in good company and perhaps even spends time in nature. I believe that this is a great possibility for further research on the impacts of youth work to the overall mental health of young people.

I am therefore calling on investors: if you are willing to spend one dollar on young people's mental health, invest it in youth work. It really saves lives. It saved mine.

Jan Peloza is a Delegate Speaker in the Mental Health Plenary Session. He is the founder of Youth Network No Excuse Slovenia which aims to work towards a healthy lifestyle and active citizenship of young people.