Report: W.Va. Struggles with High Rates of ‘Youth Disconnection’

Mar 30, 2017

A new Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report analyzed health across West Virginia, categorizing each county as “most healthy” (Jefferson County) or “least healthy” (McDowell). A variety of factors contributed to a county’s health status, such as environment, access to resources, education and youth disconnection.

Youth disconnection is defined as people ages 16-24 who are neither working or in school.

“The more a person is able to commit to a good education and obtain solid employment and have a decent income the more likely they are going to be to have a healthy life and raise a healthy family and be part of a healthy community in general,” said Jerry Spegman, one of the people who worked on the collaborative Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute report.

It found that in West Virginia, 17 percent of youths are disconnected compared to a national average of about 12 percent.

“So from a community health perspective, it’s of concern,” Spegman said. “From a public safety perspective, it’s a concern to have young people that are not engaged in either education or employment to be in the community perhaps engaging in riskier behavior than would otherwise be the case.”

Rural areas have particularly high rates of disconnected youth with an average of 20 percent, while suburban areas average about 12 percent. Successfully addressing the problem may need a multidisciplinary approach like the one used in one rural Pennsylvania community Spegman has worked with. There, he said, faith leaders, chamber of congress members, economic development and medical personnel all come together to focus on engaging local youth.

But youth disconnection is not the only factor that determines the health of a community. Across America, the rate of Americans dying prematurely is skyrocketing -- most notably among younger people in rural areas.

Drug overdose was by far the single leading cause of premature death by injury in 2015 and contributed to the accelerated rise in premature death from 2014 to 2015.

Spegman said he hopes the report will empower local health leaders and policymakers to improve health outcomes in their communities especially among disconnected youth.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.