Health & Wellness Innovators
Michael Resnick is professor emeritus at the Department of Pediatrics at the U of M. He was also the Director of the Healthy Youth Development Prevention Research Center and Leadership Education in Adolescent Health Fellowship Program.
MNBIZ: What’s changed in adolescent health studies?
Michael: Looking across 40 years of work, there has been a shift in the way we view adolescents. Moving away from this idea that young people are problems to be solved, and toward a perspective that says each and every young person is full of capacity and potential. Our job is to nurture that. To explode that. To bring it out; to make it blossom.
MNBIZ: Why is it interesting to work with adolescents?
Michael: We are dealing with young people who are, with very little exception, full of energy, enthusiasm, idealism and a desire to answer some really core existential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How do I fit in? Some of the most exciting things that we can do is to help them answer those questions.
MNBIZ: I would think it would be challenging.
Michael: Young people are always challenging, and many times the challenges emanate from the hangups and difficulties that we have as adults. It is stunning how many adults are uncomfortable or afraid of young people.
MNBIZ: What’s the secret to adolescent health?
Michael: Connectedness. The most powerful protective factor that our research has turned up again and again, replicated in 26 different countries around the world, is the power of connectedness in the lives of youth.
MNBIZ: Can everyone contribute to this connectedness?
Michael: Yes, and one of the most powerful things you can do is to help young people to be absolutely in love with school. When kids feel connected to school, with a sense of belonging and caring, every single negative indicator goes down, every positive indicator goes up.
MNBIZ: So, does disconnectedness do terrible things?
Michael: Yes. The evidence says that when people are socially isolated and disconnected from others, the effect on their health is more than the equivalent of smoking a pack a day of cigarettes, that the death rate for those who are isolated and disconnected is markedly increased compared to those who have anchoring points in their lives.
MNBIZ: You stress the importance of evidence-based policy-making, but most policy seems guided by politics, and facts are under fire.
Michael: Over the years there have been widely varying levels of interest in evidence when it comes to policy around adolescent health. I love this definition of public health: Public health is the art of using science in the context of politics to advance the health of as many people as possible, the art of using science in the context of politics.
An important part of the training that we have provided and something to which I’ve tried to pay a lot of attention is what exactly is that art of using science in the context of politics? A lot of it gets back to not only being a good scientist and having good rigorous evidence, but understanding how to communicate that to a wide variety of audiences. I think that that’s the secret to evidence-based policy, because I have testified in front of the state legislature, to the U.S. Senate, to the U.S. House, I’ve spoken at White House conferences, because there have been multiple now ... Actually, the second Bush administration, Bush Junior, first lady, Laura Bush, hosted a series of six White House conferences convened around the country, including one of them at the U of M.
MNBIZ: She was a teacher, right?
Michael: Yeah. She was a librarian and a teacher. Laura Bush took on the issue she called helping America’s youth. The first White House conference under Laura Bush was convened in Washington, D.C ., and then regional meetings all over the country, and I had the opportunity to speak at those meetings. I was heartened to see that there was an interest in, at least, an interest in understanding what the evidence tells us. But it’s the art of using science in the context of politics, so immediately you understand that whether you are testifying in front of the Senate or the House or a state legislature or a school board, or a group of county commissioners, you have to know your audience and you have to use language and metrics that make sense to them.
MNBIZ: This is as much for me, as for anything else. What can be done to encourage society at large to value, understand and appreciate science?
Michael: The way to get society to value, understand and appreciate science, rests not only in assuring that good quality, rigorous science continues to happen, but also assuring that, in all kinds of venues, large and small, there are scientists who are good at communicating that science.
And sometimes, that’s in large group professional peer-to-peer organizations. And sometimes, it’s in quiet conversation, face-to-face. Where the science isn’t the focus of the controversy, it’s finding the common ground. For example, in the field of adolescent health, where we establish that common ground around, what is it our young people need to thrive, to be healthy, to do well? Then, in those conversations, there’s all kinds of opportunity to let that evidence be known.
I think that it’s really important for leaders in our field, not only in adolescent health, but elsewhere, not only have the skills to read, write, think, speak and do good research — but also that ability to communicate it effectively to virtually any kind of audience. Whether it’s a group of peers, whether it’s a group of tired legislators — who are overwhelmed by the enormity of their responsibilities — or those whose starting point is one of deep skepticism. It becomes a real teaching and communication adventure to figure out, how do we take what we know, and communicate it in a way that leads to more dialogue, not less? To more openness of minds and hearts, not the building of walls.