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Portrait of Health: A Detailed Look at Denver Youth

Mental Health. Sexual assault. Lack of sleep. To uncover the biggest health issues facing Denver’s youth, city officials let a group of local teenagers take the lead.

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It’s around 9 a.m. on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and eight teenagers are sitting in a conference room on the fourth floor of Denver Health’s new building. With only a few days left before the holiday, you’d think they’d be checked out, more interested in daydreaming about turkey and pie than participating in an early weekend meeting. Yet these high schoolers are dialed in, immersed in a discussion about the food they don’t eat with the family members they rarely see.

“I don’t eat breakfast or lunch,” says Akeri Quincer.

“I don’t know a single person who eats breakfast,” says Olivia Almon, “because we wake up at the latest possible time.”

“Does anyone ever sit down and eat with their parents?” asks Esmeralda Gutierrez-Rivera.

“It was my birthday, and that was the first time in seven months,” says Zach Simon.

The few adults in the room exchange concerned looks. This isn’t the first time they’ve heard these revelations in the 11 months that the Youth Leadership Team (YLT) has been meeting, but that doesn’t make it any easier to learn how much Denver teens are struggling to maintain healthy lifestyles.

But that was also the whole point of this initiative. The group of teenagers in this room were recruited to talk to Denver Public Health and the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment about the health concerns of the community’s young people. In the past, the two organizations had conducted health assessments of the city every three to five years. Yet this was the first time they’d examined the health experiences of youth, and they wanted to make sure they were asking the right questions. So they turned to this diverse group, who worked together for almost a year to develop a survey and talk with more than 400 teenagers and 21 youth-serving organizations around the Mile High City.

Their final report, the Denver Youth Health Assessment, was released on January 22. It tells of diverse challenges ranging from relationship violence to food deserts to mental health issues, all of which paint a tragic picture of an overloaded generation. You should read it.

Yet statistics can only do so much to tell a complex story. So we’re profiling a few of the teens on the Youth Leadership Team, publishing one story each day this week to put faces to the struggles of Denver youth. As the report states, “How youth are dying or becoming injured does not provide enough information about how youth are living.” Here’s our attempt to fill in the gaps.


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