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May 2023Vol. 24, No. 4Strengths-Based Strategies to Support Mental Health and Well-Being for Youth, Young Adults, and Families

Written by Jas Snell and the Capacity Building Center for States

“Going through care is hard. We shouldn't need to make it harder by not giving every youth every tool they need to succeed in life.”—From "Chalyce’s Story"

Collaborating with families and youth to identify their strengths and assess what worked well within the family prior to child welfare contact can help prevent youth and young adults from falling through the cracks of the system, being overmedicated or undermedicated, and help them better navigate becoming an adult. In Chalyce's Story, a foster care advocate with lived experience regrets the missed opportunity to identify her own strengths. A mental health screening upon entry into care may have helped her identify healthy coping skills and given her the tools she needed to help manage her mental health. Early identification and development of strengths through trauma-informed and strengths-based assessment, treatment, and service planning can mitigate risk-taking behaviors, mental health challenges, and functional difficulties among youth in the child welfare system (Kisiel et al., 2017). The strategies, considerations, and examples below can help agencies integrate a focus on mental health and well-being in their work with young people by encouraging identification and discussion about what's working from the start.

Implementing Healing-Centered, Strengths-Based Practice

Trauma-informed care acknowledges that experiences leading up to and including separation have negative effects on the emotional and mental health of young people and their families. Understanding youth through the lens of traumatic events—“What’s happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?”—helps agencies respond to behavioral and emotional issues in a way that promotes healing and prevents additional trauma. While recognizing trauma helps agencies provide positive support for the mental health of young people, it is important to move beyond primarily focusing on deficits and harm. In The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement, Dr. Shawn Ginwright encourages moving to a more strengths-based, asset-driven approach that fosters and sustains well-being. Healing-centered engagement recognizes that people are “much more than the worst thing that happened to them” (Ginwright, 2018, para. 15). Healing strategies work to enhance people’s strengths, skills, and positive experiences, building on what they want to achieve. A healing-centered approach is especially important when addressing mental health challenges in communities of color.

Child welfare professionals can uplift and support youth, young adults, and families by implementing strengths-based, culturally responsive approaches that pay attention to the racial and ethnic disparities of who provides and receives services. In "Cole’s Story," Cole Williams, a former foster parent and child welfare worker who adopted his sons, explains that he “rarely read or saw positive stories or images highlighting our experience as an African American family.” To strengthen his sons’ mental health and confront messaging that negatively impacts their self-worth and esteem, he created Radical Feelings, a culturally specific series of products. The resources support a solutions-focused dialogue to change the narrative regarding mental health for Black men and boys of color. These tools and others like them can help young people, families, and service providers to identify and process feelings, reduce the stigma associated with mental health challenges among communities of color, and build professionals’ skills and knowledge around diversity, racial equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Building Trust Through Mentorship and Coaching

Implementing a strengths-based practice requires a culture that values relationship-building, healing, and seeking opportunities to learn and grow with families. Building relationships and trust through mentorship and coaching promotes growth, increases access to opportunities, and offers bidirectional learning to all parties involved. For example, in "Sarah and Nic’s Story," a peer mentor reminds the young people she mentors to stop listening to the people who don’t believe in them, and in "Corey and Kristopher’s Story," a caseworker’s commitment to being genuine and transparent helps a youth overcome years of distrust stemming from earlier traumatic experiences while in foster care.

Mental health and well-being are essential to every person’s journey of healing, access to opportunities, and self-sufficiency. When they are intentionally nurtured, healthy mental models can promote a positive vision of oneself for the future, kick off the journey of healing, and help individuals shift from the idea of lacking to the belief in abundance. Explore the resources in the Capacity Building Center for States' Menu for Youth Engagement and Voices of Lived Experience Library for more stories and examples of healing approaches from lived experienced and professional partners.

Additional Resources


Ginwright, S. (2018). The future of healing: Shifting from trauma informed care to healing centered engagement.

Kisiel, C., Summersett-Ringgold, F., Weil, L., & McClelland, G. (2017). Understanding strengths in relation to complex trauma and mental health symptoms within child welfare. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 26(2), 437–451.