Most young people go through adolescence with few problems that require formal service interventions. Vulnerability can be identified when a young person has begun to exhibit some of the risk factors listed in Figure 1. The earlier these risks are identified and acted on, the more likely it is that they can be effectively addressed and the less likely they will escalate and become entrenched.
Figure 1 is a conceptual model that places various risk factors within each ‘vulnerability layer’. The diagram’s colours and layers represent the increasing degree of vulnerability as the cumulative effect of risk factors becomes more intense, rather than associating any particular risk factor with a level of vulnerability.
Utilising risk factors, the following provides some explanation of Figure 1.
- Low risk – The majority of young people in Victoria are at low risk for vulnerability. The adolescent stage of development is a time of vulnerability, but generally these young people have a number of supports in place that can assist them with their issues. These young people might take a drink once in a while or occasionally truant. They may be sexually active but generally use contraception. These young people may also experience relationship or social difficulties with their peers, but generally have a positive peer and support network. These young people are also connected to their family and community.
- Experiencing additional problems – These young people make up the largest percentage of vulnerable young people and are involved in one or two high-risk behaviours but not as intensely as their high-risk and highly vulnerable peers. These young people may be not achieving academically at school, occasionally truant, experiment with alcohol or other drugs, have unprotected sex sometimes, or have suicidal thoughts from time to time. They are vulnerable because of their behaviours and need support to ensure their issues do not compound and become complex. These young people mainly have pro-social peers and are generally still attached to their families.
- Highly vulnerable – This group makes up a small percentage of all young Victorians, but is a larger group than the high-risk group. These young people are most often heavily involved with drinking, smoking and using illegal drugs. They are not achieving academically, are often truant, and frequently have unprotected sex. Others might be identified as ‘high mental health risk’ adolescents because they are experiencing mental health issues that significantly impact on their personal and social functioning, often occurring together with alcohol or other drug misuse. The peers of these young people are likely to be engaging in similar behaviours, although these young people may also have a few pro-social peers. These young people may still be attached to their family and be engaged in pro-social activities such as sport.
- High risk – A small percentage of young people are at high risk. Many of them will be experiencing multiple risk factors. For example, these young people are likely to have been arrested at least once during the year, regularly drinking (probably to excess), using illegal drugs and are likely to be sexually active, engaging mostly in unprotected sex. Many have mental health issues or diagnoses; some will have attempted suicide or have histories of repeated self-harm. Most of these young people will have left school early or will be significantly behind in their academic attainment. These young people will mostly be associating with peers who have similar behaviours and issues and are likely to be disengaged from their family. Many will be homeless or in transient accommodation.
Assessment of vulnerable young people needs to be comprehensive to ensure that all risk factors are identified across the individual, family and community contexts. Interventions need to be planned to strengthen the positive aspects in young people’s lives while incorporating strategies to reduce apparent risk factors.
A comprehensive localised youth service system that provides early intervention services
Figure 2 shows the four layers of vulnerability described earlier and provides some indicators for services that appear to work best for each layer.
While the layers are indicated in various colours, it needs to be emphasised that there are no hard boundaries around the layers. Young people can move between each layer at any point in time. It is important for services to be able to provide smooth pathways both into and out of their area of expertise so that young people can experience service flexibility that focuses on their individual needs.
Figure 2 broadly outlines services and interventions that work with vulnerable young people depending on their level of vulnerability as depicted in Figure 1. It is likely that those young people in layer three will need multiple services. They require comprehensive case management approaches to ensure that services are coordinated and progress monitored.
Vulnerable Youth Framework discussion paper. Development of a policy framework for VIctoria's vulnerable young people.
Department of Human Services, Department of Planning and Community Development, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development,