Area students take over Lycoming County Youth Development Task Force

Local students have taken the reigns of the more than two decade old Lycoming County Youth Development Task Force and over the first year of the change in ownership, the focus of the task force has changed to include mental health along with drug and alcohol awareness.

For twenty years the Lycoming County Youth Development Task Force has been working towards raising awareness of the dangers of drug and alcohol use among county middle school and high school students. In the last year, it has gone from an adult run program to being completely run by students who are changing the focus of the group based on what they see every day in their schools.

The task force is a youth focused subcommittee of the Lycoming County Health Improvement Coalition, a volunteer organization that tackles social issues in the county.

“We started the coalition in 1996. It developed from there and we started doing more gradually,” Timothy Mahoney, president of the coalition, said. “We have five task forces as a part of the coalition. This is the purest it’s been as far as students running it. The adults helped them along but sometimes the adults get in the way.”

The task force is run by students from across the county. Students run everything from special events planning, marketing and social media outreach, to running a research arm.

“Last year we started it but this year is really the inaugural year that they are 100 percent in charge,” task force chair Abby Brown said. “The more involvement the kids are having, now they are not just being heard, they are running it.”

When the students began picking up the leadership for the task force, there were two major elements that caused them to point the task force in the direction of their latest campaign, “Find Your Worth,” which is focused on student depression and suicide rates in Lycoming County.

According to Brown, as early as last year the students were talking about making a push to include mental illnesses in their outreach campaigns, even before many of them were affected by student suicide in their own school.

“These kids were already saying in the early fall, lets incorporate mental health. It’s sad,” Brown said. “They were already moving that way and then the suicides happened. The kids said let’s do this and then all these things happened.”

Witnessing the effects of depression and suicide on their community has been a huge reason for many of these students to want to reach out to their classmates.

“The events in Williamsport last year. That really hit all of us hard and we don’t want anything like that to happen again,” Colton Lovell, a Williamsport Area High School senior, said. “Suicide really is such a terrible thing and there are ways to prevent it. I lost one of my best friends and I want to make a difference because I don’t want anybody else to lose their best friend.”

Another leading cause of the task force’s push for increased mental health awareness is because of their research arm. The primary focus of the task force’s research is to run focus groups using the Pennsylvania Youth Survey.

“The PAYS study, drives everything we do and its data driven,” Mahoney said. “Thats all the coalition does is we try to get information data so we can say ‘ok what’s the need?’ and then try to develop attention or focus on that with grants, community awareness, those kinds of things.”

The report is a mixture of local survey data, state survey data and local focus groups and is produced by Catherine Mohn, a Lock Haven University health science major, and Beth McMahon, a Lock Haven University health sciences professor and a chair of the task force.

According to the most recent report from 2015, which surveyed 2,697 Lycoming County students from grades six, eight, ten and twelve, alcohol and cigarette use has declined in use among students, marijuana use has increased and feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts have steadily increased.

With the current leadership of the task force changing to students, two students from the task force, Mary McMahon and Morgan Marty, were certified through the National Institute of Health to be able to run the task force’s focus groups.

“Just the idea of working to make this a safe spot for everyone, is what we are really here for,” Marty, a Williamsport senior, said. “I think it is good that we switched from the drug and alcohol to more of a mental health because people dont see it as much of a problem.”

The focus groups give a chance for the task force to ask local students, who see these problems in their schools first hand, if they feel that the research portrays those problems. To McMahon, giving students the ability to talk to their peers about these issues can be much more informative.

“They sit down with their own age group,” McMahon said. “You can do a whole lot more when you have them engaged.”

The group working on the report will be attending the National Shape America Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, to present their research to health professionals from across the country.