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The Dignity of Risk – Young Adult Programming in the 21st Century

In their Preventing Chronic Disease publication, the Center for Disease Control just highlighted the correlation between depression and joblessness relating to young adults.  According to the study, “nearly 12 percent of young adults were depressed and about 23 percent were unemployed. The risk of depression was three times higher for unemployed than employed young adults.”  The study was also clear that they were unable to discern which came first – the depression or the joblessness – but regardless, the correlation was clear.

young adult therapy programs

Chicken/Egg.  Egg/Chicken.  Does it matter, and what is the implication for clinically-informed young adult programming?  This is a moving target, and while trends and studies can paint broad brush strokes, we don’t live in a paint-by-the-numbers environment.  We act on and in our environment, and it acts on us, in a perpetually variable relationship – and yet, this study clearly speaks to the importance of serving, treating, and supporting young adults with chronic and situational mental health issues.  If there is a linear relationship between un- and under-employment and the clinically depressed, then clearly targeted clinical intervention is an important tool to help build not only long-term mental health, but also access to long-term employment.  Equally important is vocational education, as job training and job placement which leads to gainful employment may also help the depression.  But how do we help?


Much has been written about the T-ball culture, where all participants get a trophy, where A class work has been reduced to “thumbs up” for effort, and where success is seen as a right, not a responsibility.  Developmentally, there is a place and time for this abundant reinforcement: adolescents and young adults often need a series of structurally supported  “wins” in order to build the skills and confidence to move forward in independence.  And yet, to be truly independent, young adults also benefit from being provided the opportunity, and autonomy, to risk, so that both failures and successes are authentic.  This is often a terrifying proposition for parents, students, and programs, and yet, to have a true success there must also have been the opportunity for an equally impressive failure.  


The range of young adult programming extends from highly structured and controlled environments (challenges and “wins” are structurally supported) to open and supportive environments (where support and processing is available, but successes and failures exist beyond the control of the program).  Evaluating which type of environment is best for your young adult is a dynamic decision, but no matter the intervention, at some point the stakes will become real – and this is a necessary gift.


Evaluating where your young adult is on his/ her (and your) continuum of capacity to experience true risk, with authentic opportunities to succeed or stumble, is often a progressively evolving continuum.  Starting out treatment for depression, or other chronic mental health issues, is often best begun in a controlled environment, where “wins” are supported and “stumbles” are mitigated.  There may even be the need for a secondary or step-down placement where authentic risk is amplified, and yet overt support continues.  Finding the right mix can be challenging, but eventually for young adults to experience true success, they must also be given the space to take true risk – which includes the potential for true failure.  Providing your young adult The Dignity to Risk, the right to fail, and the opportunity to success, is ultimately the final step in a long process of supporting authentic independence.



About the Author

headshot of Jake WeldJake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs.  He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.