Each year, the Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book allows readers and leaders to investigate areas in which Kentucky and its counties are making progress and areas needing focused attention for improvement. The publication highlights data in four domains of child well-being in Kentucky: economic security, education, health, and family and community. As we look ahead to the 2023 Kentucky General Assembly and Governor’s race, Kentucky Youth Advocates invited young people from across the Commonwealth to share their hopes and concerns with us the opening essay and domain spreads of this year’s data book features their messages.

At the 2022 County Data Book launch event, young people joined Kentucky Youth Advocates in sharing their perspectives on data trends and themes in youth messages read what Jordan, Kori, and Kirsten shared below.

Message from Jordan Joslin, 10th grade student from Bullitt County and a member of the Health Youth Ambassadors:

In the 2022 KIDS COUNT County Data Book, nearly 1 in 6 sixth graders in Kentucky said they deal with depression and anxiety. 21% of 8th graders and 25% of 10th and 12th graders have reported being under serious psychological stress. While kids can easily mask the stresses and struggles of depression and anxiety, youth mental health is a serious concern, and we must listen to what Kentucky’s kids are saying about it.

One quote that stands out to me from the data book is from Kyleigh, from Menifee County. Kyleigh says, “Mental health is hard. Kids need breaks. Kids are so strong and capable of so much, but they are also going through a lot.”

Kentucky’s kids are still dealing with the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on them–especially the impact it had on their mental health. Kids still had to deal with poverty, hunger, discrimination, community violence, and not to mention other stresses such as navigating school and friendships in quarantine and isolation. 

I know personally during the pandemic it was a struggle seeing family and friends around me worried about money and where their next meal would come from. And for me, I was always stressed about so many things, and–as Kyleigh said–I just wanted a break. 

Racial disparities are also something to consider as we talk about youth mental health. Latinx kids and teens are struggling with anxiety and depression more than their Black and White peers. This is primarily because of the reality of language barriers, acculturation stress, concerns with immigration status, and stigmas around mental health.

To me, mental health is very important because as a teen you go through a lot and you see a lot that adults do not always see. And seeing people go through hardships, depression, and anxiety can make you upset and want a change. That is what makes me so passionate about mental health. 

As a teen getting good sleep, plenty of exercise, drinking plenty of water and having good friends around you, can help your mental health and also improve your overall health! And having an adult in your life that you can always trust and talk to when you need to is also great. Some of those in your school can be a teacher, counselor, or a mental health trained professional!  

So, today, I ask you to please remember that we need you. Kids and teens need you. The importance of caring adults is vital for Kentucky’s youth. Thank you for being here today and helping to make the safety and mental health of Kentucky’s kids count!

Message from Kori Wheeler, Young Adult from Jefferson County, a graduate from YouthBuild Louisville and a member of REFORM.Lou:

I am a graduate from YouthBuild Louisville and a member from REFORM Louisville, which is a group working to make positive changes in our  juvenile justice system. Within our group we have talked about some of the violence we’ve seen in our community and how some of that stems off not having anything positive to do or having any positive people around them. We have found that not having positive opportunities has led to more violence among youth and makes it harder for youth to have a safe space to simply be a kid. 

Within the safe community section of the KIDS COUNT book, the data point that stands out to me the most is youth incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. In Kentucky, overall 13.7 per 1,000 youth are incarcerated, but in Jefferson County it’s 19.9 per 1,000 youth incarcerated. The data wasn’t surprising but it’s always disheartening to see how many people are involved in the justice system.

It was also disheartening to see how many complaints have been filed against children age 12 and younger and seeing that young Black children have complaints filed against them at higher rates compared to their White peers. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about kids who are in the juvenile justice system, but most of the children are charged with non-violent offenses. 

The need for safe communities is so important. Youth surveyed for the County Data Book talked about the need for safe community spaces for them to be active or simply hang out with friends. 

Christopher from Johnson County mentioned the need to have places where kids and young people can come and spend time together. Just 16.7% of Kentucky children have access to neighborhood amenities like recreational facilities, libraries, playgrounds and sidewalks.

All children deserve supportive families and strong communities with equal opportunities to thrive. Kids also deserve a second chance when they make a mistake at a young age, such as access to a diversion program or other community resources without being stuck in the juvenile justice system. 

As TyAiera of Jefferson County says in the data book, “State leaders should help make all kids feel safe, loved and respected.” They can do that by ensuring kids have safe spaces in their community to hang out and just be kids and positive opportunities and activities. 

Message from Kirsten Yancy, 12th grade student from Graves County and a member of the Health Youth Ambassadors:

When Kentucky kids were asked what they wanted from their governor, the response was “LISTEN TO US!” Youth need a voice. Mikaela from Hardin County says, “At least for me, it’d be nice to have adults check in and ask what I feel is best for me. I feel like a lot of adults assume the best for adults and it doesn’t always end up being what will benefit a child.” 

Among my peers, the most talked about issue among high schoolers and even middle schoolers is mental health. Recently, my classmates have dealt with COVID and the tornado of December 10, 2021 back-to-back. This causes storm anxiety and feeling unable to miss school, lest they fall behind. There’s a big impact on mental health, which is a nation-wide issue. Elizabeth from Daviess County says, “Mental health should be a big priority. As someone that has anxiety and it affects me everyday not just mentally but also physically, it is the best feeling knowing that people really care about me and the way I feel.”

A few other quotes from the County Data Book that speaks to me include those that responded to the question: “What does it look like for you to be thriving and living the life of your dreams?”

  • TaNyia from Jefferson County said, “I will be able to take care of myself.”
  • Clara from Jefferson County said, “I want a stable job and a liveable home.”
  • Lila from Graves County said,”achieving a solid education and settling down.”
  • Elizabeth from Daviess County said, “I wish to be happy with myself in whatever I am doing.”
  • Christopher from Johnson County said, “Having a financially stable household.”

What they are listing as living the life of their dreams are things they shouldn’t be worrying about as minors under the voting age. They should be focused on going to school every day and seeing their friends. NOT worrying when their next meal is going to be, or if they will be safe and cared for in their own household.

In the KIDS COUNT County Data Book, there are many statistics listed, all including a baseline comparison. With these baseline comparisons, it shows whether this past year’s data has a positive or negative change since the first initial data pool. How do we ensure a positive direction for Kentucky kids and families?

Go to kyyouth.org for access to the County Data Book. Check out your county’s data profile on: Economic Security, Education, Health, and Family and Community. At the start of each of the aforementioned sections, there is a box titled “Solutions.” This provides a list of actions you can take to improve your county’s statistics.

“Leaders should know what resources kids need to do well in school. This is a starting point.” – Timothy from Jefferson County

For my call to action: Ask your legislators to make decisions that are the most beneficial and create the best opportunities for our future generations. Be sure to vote in the upcoming 2023 gubernatorial race. Give Kentucky kids and families a voice!

Access the 2022 County Data Book, county data profiles, and the data dashboard featuring state data from the report disaggregated by race/ethnicity at www.kyyouth.org/kentucky-kids-count/.

The 2022 Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book was made possible with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and KIDS COUNT sponsors, including Aetna® Better Health of Kentucky, Kosair Charities®, and Charter Communications. Any findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Annie E. Casey Foundation or other supporters.