Youth engagement is grounded in a set of guiding principles that inform how you work with young people to ensure that it is authentic and meaningful. Working from both evidence as well as their own personal experiences of being engaged, the Youth Advisors at the Knowledge Institute on Child and Youth Mental Health and Addictions (the Knowledge Institute) have established the following seven guiding principles of youth engagement:
Guiding principles of youth engagement
Value youth as community assets
Commit to participatory leadership
Participatory leadership is based on the axiom nothing about us without us. 2 It invites those most affected by an issue (i.e., youth, families, service providers, management, funders, etc.) to generate a shared understanding of problems, priorities and possibilities and to work towards achievable and sustainable goals. It builds the capacity of young people to mobilize around issues that are important to them, and to contribute to social change.3
Build authentic relationships
Relationships are key to building and sustaining resilience and positive youth development. 1 Intergenerational relationships are built on respect and trust. They involve an equal power balance between youth and adults working as a collective to achieve common goals. Working in partnerships means youth have a voice in decisions and both adults and youth are valued for their contributions. 4, 5
Strive for health equity
Health equity is about removing barriers that prevent access to mental health care to ensure equal health outcomes for all children, youth and families. Social determinants of health (gender, race, sexual orientation, income and education, among many other identities) are factors that influence a person’s access to appropriate mental health care. 6
Anti-oppressive practice (AOP) is an approach that encourages diversity and prioritizes the needs and strengths of marginalized groups in service provision. It challenges the status quo, working to transform the structures that create inequities in the first place. AOP redefines how agencies work through differences, requiring both a personal and organizational commitment to align our work with the perspectives and preferences of young people and families, and understand how they wish to be engaged 7.
Meet youth where they’re at
Authentic youth engagement is about having realistic expectations, building on young people’s unique strengths, addressing barriers to participation and creating opportunities for youth to develop their skills. 8 Adults often feel the need to help youth to succeed and prevent them from failing. When it comes to youth engagment, youth and adults may make mistakes along the way. Youth engagement is not just about outcomes, it’s about the process of being meaningfully involved.
Use a whole community approach
Youth live, work and play across multiple systems that affect their mental health and development. Several factors can threaten youths’ mental health, including, unemployment, job insecurity and poor working conditions, low income and education, food insecurity, the absence of safe and affordable housing, social exclusion and so on 9. Youth mental health is a shared responsibility, and young people are key players in creating solutions.
Put safety first
The safety of participants, both youth and adult, is paramount. Accessible clinical support across youth engagement activities is essential, particularly when youth (and adults) are asked to draw on lived experience while engaging in these activities.
Watch this video and learn more about the process of youth engagement
mindyourmind is an organization that believes youth involvement contributes to wellbeing. They support continuous learning and improvement of youth engagement. Below is a video they created explaining some of the key ingredients involved in youth engagement. You can also read about how they created their youth involvement model.