UWNEMN hopeful new report will benefit local youth, local agencies working with youth

A new Wilder Research report commissioned by United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN) has identified both assets and opportunities to better support young people in our community.

The report was released in January 2024 and was created by combining existing data sources with local surveys and interviews conducted over the course of the 2022-2023 school year.

Improving youth mental health and well-being has long been a targeted issue in UWNEMN’s investment plan, a regularly updated document that steers the programs the organization funds and operates throughout the region. In recent years, UWNEMN has sought to play a larger role in addressing the issue.

“The topic of mental health is both universal and deeply personal,” said UWNEMN Executive Director Erin Shay. “It affects us all in varying degrees, and as such opinions on the ‘right’ pathway to improve mental wellness are passionate and varied.

Of course we know there’s not one pathway let alone a ‘right’ one – but we wanted to find the right one for our organization and wanted to help others working to support local youth find the right one for them, as well.”


It has become a best practice for UWNEMN to commission regional assessments with Wilder Research in order to identify gaps for particular issues. A 2013 childcare shortage assessment resulted in UWNEMN’s Bright Beginnings program, and a 2014 veterans’ services assessment resulted in its United for Veterans program.

For this particular assessment, Wilder Research surveyed and interviewed 149 school staff, 106 parents and guardians (referred to as caregivers in the report), and 799 students grades 6-12 across the organization’s service area to identify areas of greatest need.

“The findings fill a significant gap in our understanding of how to support youth in the region,” said Wilder Research Scientist Melissa Serafin. “Most importantly, this study prioritized youth input to ensure efforts are tailored to their perceptions and lived experience.”

Participating youth responded positively about adults in their lives – 92% said they feel safe and respected at home, and 88% said adults in their lives believe in them – and largely positively about themselves with 82% saying they feel in control of their lives and their futures.

However, when it comes stress and mental health, responses vary. Despite positive relationships, 47% of youth said they would not reach out to a parent or guardian if distressed.

“[Help adults understand] that mental health isn’t just a phase,” one student interviewed suggested. “It’s something real.”

Participating adults agreed they could use some assistance when it comes to the topic. Many expressed confusion surrounding what resources are available locally.

“Mental health is a complicated thing, and you don’t know where to start,” one caregiver responded.


Responses also identified some differences in opinion. When asked whether youth express their feelings in proper ways, 60% of students said yes compared to 76% of caregivers and 53% of school staff. When asked whether schoolwork is a top stressor for youth, 65% of youth and 55% of caregivers said yes compared to 5% of school staff.

“These results show some real strengths for young people in our community but also some definite areas in need of support,” said UWNEMN Community Impact Director Katy Lofquist.

UWNEMN staff and Board of Directors will now spend time reviewing the report as they discuss future plans and initiatives. The report includes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Streamline the referral process, provide service navigation assistance to families, and address barriers to services
  • Provide nonclinical activities and programs that support mental well-being
  • Promote strong positive family relationships, resiliency despite family stressors, and conversations about mental health
  • Address academic stress and promote positive relationships with peers, teachers, and school staff

“Our next steps aren’t immediately clear, but what is clear is improving mental wellness requires a holistic approach,” Shay said.

The report has also been shared with stakeholders across the region.

“We are grateful to everyone who participated in this assessment for sharing their perspectives,” Lofquist said.  “Their voices will help not only UWNEMN but - we hope - many community partners dedicated to supporting future generations in our region.”

Read the full report here.