Youth Development a Priority for Public Health

A new report from the Door County Department of Public Health revealed that Door County folks are generally a healthy bunch. They have long lives that are pretty happy. But health is a moving target and no group can get a perfect score. On Jan. 28, the county brought together residents and stakeholders in the area to discuss the most pressing health concerns facing residents today. At the end of the presentation, the audience voted to prioritize healthy growth and development when considering the county’s health needs.

“If you can get the children when they’re young, you’re trying to stop the problem before it starts, which is what public health is all about. That’s where you can really help the problem,” said Rhonda Kolberg, head of the county’s Department of Public Health.

This vote added to the previous three priorities for the county health department; mental health, adequate and safe food and nutrition, and oral health. The department will now develop long-, intermediate- and short-term goals to measure the effectiveness of its work on these health goals.

The county’s public health nurses presented data in each of the twelve goals laid out in the state health plan, Healthiest Wisconsin 2020: Everyone Living Better, Longer. Overall, Door County ranks eighth in the state for overall health outcomes, such as length and quality of life, and 17th for health factors, including smoking, obesity, exercise and other things that affect a population’s health.

Door County’s unique demographic shows up frequently in the data, particularly the aging population. In 1990, the median age of the county was 36.4. In 2015 it was 52.3. As the population decreases with the decline in residents from newborns to 44 years old, the county is getting older and with age comes health problems.

“We need to be mindful about how we will provide services and support for the aging population,” said Joe Krebsbach, director of the county’s Department of Human Services, in the 174-page assessment. Krebsbach feels there is a lack of resources to meet the needs of the aging population, particularly a lack of people to provide these services.

The younger population might become those providers, but only through healthy growth and development.

“What they’re finding is that children are not ready, from a social and emotional point of view, for school,” said Mary Ellen Smith, public health nurse. “When we have less children in Door County every year, we need to take care of our children. They are our future.”

Julie Davis is the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Door County. When the audience was asked to make a pitch enforcing their choice in the new county health priority, Davis drew on her experience leading one of the largest youth groups in the county.

“The crisis that we have seen at the school district level, in the area of school readiness, is really to a crisis stage where there are two different groups coming in,” said Davis. “Children who are ready to learn and children who are so unable to self-regulate, who can’t engage in the education process. It’s very disruptive to the school environments and outside of school. It is a crisis that is changing the face of our community.”

The audience believed that if the county can get kids on a healthy track, that success would trickle down to all other areas of public health.

“I see healthy development as a part of mental health,” said Tenley Hitz, Family Living Educator at UW-Extension.

The health assessment states that experiencing things such as racism and poverty in youth have a negative impact on health. Health of a mother during pregnancy and the first few years of a child’s life can affect health problems such as diabetes, blood pressure and heart disease. Life stress such as family turmoil, violent neighborhoods and poor daycare conditions put a child at higher risk for mental health and development problems.

Part of these environmental needs address child abuse, which Door County encounters more often than the state average at 4.9 cases per 1,000 children.

“None of our colleagues who work at Human Services are here today and I think that’s because they are so busy,” said Smith. “When there’s a child abuse report, someone calls human services, they decide if this is something they need to investigate or not. Their first goal is parent education, but if that doesn’t work then it goes to court and parental rights are sometimes terminated. The number of cases going to court is also increasing in Door County.”

Child abuse falls under the umbrella of healthy growth and development and will be an important part in addressing the department’s new health priority.

“Now we’ll be reformulating a plan based on these priorities today,” said Kolberg, reminding the audience that all 12 health topics are under the watch of the department. “Just because alcohol didn’t come up to number one doesn’t mean we won’t be working on it. We have been working on and we will continue to work on it, it just won’t be in the formulized plan.”

The full assessment can be found on the public health page of Door County’s website under 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment.

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