Los Alamos Teen Center Director Sylvan Argo addresses Los Alamos County Council Dec. 4 during a panel discussion on Promoting a Healthy Community. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
\Note: A landmark panel discussion was held at the Dec. 4 Los Alamos County Council meeting on Promoting a Healthy Community which resulted in a very extensive and comprehensive discussion of issues of concern in the community particularly for youth and the efforts being made to address those issues as well as available resources. The Los Alamos Reporter is publishing a series of stories based on the meeting. This is story is the third of four in the series.
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Sylvan Argo, director of the Los Alamos Teen Center presented concerns reported by local teens to the Los Alamos County Council Dec. 4 during a panel discussion on Promoting a Healthy Community.
Argo told Councilors the Teen Center serves a wide range population of teens from freshmen to seniors in school, homeschoolers, those who have less school pursuing GEd or other opportunities and training or other life paths. She said in 2017, the Teen Center served 1700 teens, had 800 active members and 29,000 visits and noted a steady 20 percent increase in participation for the last five years.
“We are that safe place away from home, away from school where we have caring adults and there’s downtime enough that we can develop a relationship where teens might share their circumstance with us. The issues raised are not necessarily things we see on site but things teens are reporting to us, sharing with us or disclosing to us as well. So it’s a broad snapshot of issues,” she said.
Argo said the Teen Center sees anxiety, depression and stress that is often but not exclusively related to academic stress or what the definitions of success is, specifically in this community. She said there are high rates of self-harm behaviors and a “normalization” of the issue.
“A concern we even hear on a day-to-day basis is the vernacular in youth culture of just expressing comments about killing themselves and how that’s used towards others and about themselves. A lot of suicide – suicide ideation, suicide attempts and the point here that we’re witness to and have shared with us is how youth are getting to that point, so we’re really looking at the root of that hopelessness point and all the other life circumstances,” she said.
She noted that with the easy access and ways to hide vaping devices, “there’s a lack of awareness of really the effects and strengths of what’s in those and the concerns that other things besides nicotine are used in those as well and it’s harder to track”.
“There’s a wide range of concern that we have regarding the bullying issue and in particular the way we’re seeing it play out in relationships is a lack of respect, a lack of empathy and a lack of compassion. “What concerns me personally the most is when we have conversations with teens there is a disconnect or lack of awareness of the impact that a behavior or word or anything of that nature can have on another person,” Argo said. “In respect to harassment as well as it links to bullying with the lack of respect, empathy and compassion it also blends with issues of consent and teens recently on youth panels and others have shared their concerns with issues of consent starting at a very early age and are requesting that there be something addressed at younger ages exploring what consent actually means.”
She said physical and sexual violence is prevalent in all kinds of relationships and that again, it comes down to that “lack of consent and a lack of respect”.
Argo said other things that have been shared with Teen Center staff are body dysmorphia issues and teens being “over-planned, overworked and just overscheduled in general”. She also mentioned concern about a lot of expectations coming internally and externally and a lack of sleep
Argo said the Teen Center us ultimately concerned that all youth have a place to be.
“So really looking at that place that’s outside home, that’s outside school where youth can belong and build healthy relationships and seek different types of support or mentorship of mind, body and spirit. A bottom line concern is that not all of our youth have that place. While there is ample funding on different fronts for youth centers – the Youth Activity Center is fantastic – but our middles-schoolers do not have the adequate space that they need and the types of support that they need,” she said.
Argo said youth need to be truly heard and expressed the importance of not just speaking about them but listening to them and asking them what they need.
“We really need more youth involvement in finding some of the solutions to our concerns,” she said.
She said the many breakout focus groups and panels are hearing that youth do not feel heard.
“They feel that if they come to an adult and disclose a case of abuse or issues on any front that they’re often not taken seriously. I understand that some of this is because of confidentiality on different fronts with regard to school or different agencies, but one thing we can all do as a community is work to provide that connection with the follow-up, even if we can’t disclose information, to make sure that youth feel heard and that something is being done with the information, that we don’t drop the ball,” Argo said.
She noted that prevention involves the whole community.
“We really need family, school and wider community youth-serving agencies to work together and so I’m really excited about all the collaboration and even project partners in the room are daily inspirations to me but we can do better and I think there’s a lot of scapegoating and finger pointing that can happen easily and so it’s just understanding that we all are in this as a unified group,” she said.
Argo said there’s a stigma in the community with regard to seeking mental health services and asking for health support and that the youth feel that ripple effect. She said adults in the community are “modeling these unhealthy and risk behaviors as well”.
“We also need to redefine success as a community. This is something that has come up on many youth panels and focus groups, with the XQ project and other things that have come through the community and it’s come up time and time again how are we going to address this,” she said.
She said what the Teen Center offers is a free, supervised place to be with all programs and services available free to teens including free food from project partners.
“We are administered by The Family YMCA and one thing the Y can bring is a strength in youth programming and the capacity and infrastructure to offer the kinds of programs we offer at the Teen Center. I know other agencies do that for younger age groups and I’m particularly thankful for those that we have in this community. We need a space where teens and youth can be celebrated, supported, encouraged and heard, where they can seek mentorship and have that healthy relationship modeled in every interaction, where they have opportunities to explore and develop new ideas, skills and interests,” Argo said. “ And then opportunities to lead.”
She thanked Councilor Morrie Pongratz for bringing up during the meeting that the successes the community has had need to be celebrated.
“I really think that with all of our agencies there’s a lot of work happening behind the scenes that we need to recognize but we can do better. We need a space specifically for middle-schoolers similar to the Youth Activity Center and Teen Center spaces. I would also suggest increased County support towards all Youth Activity and Teen Center spaces and continued support for all youth programs. Thank you for all you have supported thus far,” Argo said.
She asked for continued support for the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board’s youth resource specialists which she said are her “go-to resources” because Teen Center staff are not case managers themselves and not trained in certain aspects.
“They are our first call often when a teen is in crisis or in need of support,” she said.
Argo said there is a need for increased support for prevention and asset-based programming. She said the restorative justice model is incredibly important for youth especially when looking at bullying and harassment behavior. She also encouraged additional support for Los Alamos County Social Services Division which she said could also be a hub for leveraging opportunities and for being a conduit for programs and contracting as they grow.
“I believe we are a model to other communities around New Mexico from everything I hear from the JJAB front in the JJAB board meetings. We are doing more on prevention than many communities are and we can do better. We can lead our state and even other states with the types of programming we are developing now,” she said. “I would strongly suggest that you lend support towards convening and encouraging conversations around these issues and concerns and to make these identified areas a concern, a priority for future funding as we go forward especially with regard to our prevention and social emotional programs and anything that supports the betterment of our youth,” Argo concluded.