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Group to Launch New Probe of Adolescents : Leaders in Law, Science, Business, Other Fields Expected to Spend at Least Three Years on Study

Times Staff Writer

In an era of mounting concern over a seemingly endless list of crucial issues, the Carnegie Corp. of New York has chosen to focus new attention on a subject that’s close to home for many Americans: the adolescent.

The Carnegie Corp.'s president, Dr. David Hamburg, said in announcing the creation of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, “Adolescence is, needless to say, a critical period of development. One is no longer a child, nor is one yet an adult. It is during adolescence that people adopt self-damaging behavior patterns that can sometimes shorten life.”

Hamburg will chair the new council, to consist of about 16 leaders from the fields of law, science, business, government, the media, health and education as well as from youth-serving agencies. It is expected to have a budget of about $2 million for at least three to five years, according to Hamburg. (The Carnegie Corp., a New York-based philanthropic organization, has since 1955 spent $40 million on early childhood and adolescence programs.)

The primary purpose of the new program will be to generate public and private support for measures that “prevent seriously damaging problems in adolescences” and “promote healthier adolescent development,” according to Carnegie Corp. director of publications Avery Russell.

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He said the council’s small professional staff will be supplemented by consultants from the United States and other countries. Special attention, she said, will be devoted to the problems of early adolescence, ages 10 to 15.

“The council will try to synthesize what is known about how to reduce the burden of suffering among adolescents and about how to help them grow up healthier,” Hamburg said. “It will recommend solutions, grounded in evidence. It will communicate its findings and recommendations to practitioners in council publications and to the general public through the media. The hope is that the council, through these activities, will stir the nation to improve its treatment of this age group.”

Reached by telephone at a conference of foundation leaders in Santa Fe, N. M., Hamburg, a former practicing and research psychiatrist, stressed the gravity of the issues that affect adolescents. Among teen-agers, he noted, drug and cigarette use has in the last five years “leveled off at high rates.” Adolescent pregnancy continues to rise. Delinquency remains unabated, and suicide is on the upswing. For education, Hamburg said, the early adolescent years “constitute a battle zone.” Dropout rates are epidemic.

“And yet as far as I can make out,” Hamburg said, “these problems of constructive development are not very high on the world agenda.”

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Added Hamburg, “I am just so impressed by the major discrepancies between the (adolescent) casualties on the one hand, and the lack of serious, sustained attention on the other hand.”

Problems Minimized

Teen-agers, Hamburg suggested, fall prey to easy stereotypes. Their problems tend often to be minimized: “In part,” Hamburg said, “it has to do with very wishful thinking. It’s the good-old-days phenomenon: You’ve made it through, so you forget how hard it was.”

And besides, “children and adolescents don’t constitute a political constituency.”

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Nevertheless, this bloc of young citizens lives in a world that, as Hamburg described it, “has been changing so fast that we really haven’t caught up with all the facts. There’s the world transformation factor: Driven by unprecedented developments in science and technology, we really don’t grasp very well the kind of world we are living in.

“In many ways, materially, adolescents today have opportunities that those before them never had,” Hamburg said. “But it’s very difficult to understand.”

And adolescence itself is an evolving concept. As Hamburg observed, “The lengthening of adolescence is an interesting thing. It has been getting longer basically since the Industrial Revolution, an earlier and earlier onset, physically, of the signs of adolescence. Puberty today occurs several years earlier than it did a couple of centuries ago.

“On the other hand,” he said, “the other end of adolescence has gotten stretched out. When does childhood end and adulthood begin? When are you ready? When have you had enough education?

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“Conservatively,” Hamburg said, “we’re talking about a decade of uncertainty.”

Little understood, generally regarded as the noisy but necessary precursors of adults, adolescents “for the longest time, kind of fell between the laboratory stools in medicine and in research,” Hamburg said. “They were just somewhere between the child and adult level.”

Perhaps as a consequence, as a research study population, adolescents have not necessarily rated high on the hot-topic charts. “I think we have a small cadre of excellent research,” Hamburg said, “very small in relationship to the problem. There’s only a very small cadre of innovators working in this area, and a very small cadre of leaders in the society who are deeply engaged in trying to understand it--too few people in terms of real leadership capabilities.”

Rather than outright ignoring the adolescent, Hamburg said, “I think we have sort of tended to assume kids would grow out of it.”

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Hope to Stimulate Activity

Hamburg said he hopes the new project will “stimulate a lot of activity around the country, to get this issue higher on the agenda.”

Another major goal of the new Adolescent Development Council, Hamburg said, is to help consolidate the “highly fragmented” data that does exist in the field. “For example,” he said, “in our science policy activity, we will establish regular contact between the government agencies that support research in this area and the foundations that support research on adolescence.”

To date, “there have been big bureaucratic and cultural obstacles about sharing this information,” Hamburg said. And so “concretely,” he went on, “one thing we will do early on and continuously is to generate intelligible, credible syntheses of existing knowledge.”

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As serious as the problems of adolescence may be, Hamburg was the first to agree that the very existence of an organization to focus on those issues is itself a salutary indicator.

‘A Positive Statement’

“I think we really are making a positive statement about the future,” Hamburg said. “We really believe that when the nation’s attention gets focused on the problem, a lot of constructive things can be done and the young people will have the capacity to respond.”

Said Hamburg: “We don’t believe the problems can be solved by neglect.”

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In making the latter pronouncement, Hamburg might have stolen a page from his president’s essay in the Carnegie Corp.'s latest annual report. Urging members of the scientific, medical and educational professions to apply their knowledge and leadership to promote the healthy development of America’s children, Hamburg called for increased emphasis on prevention, rather than simply on treating crisis situations.

Scientific research, Hamburg said, has made it possible “to fashion clear guidelines for preventive action” by putting together what is known about risk factors with interventions that are proven or plausible.

“The challenge henceforth,” Hamburg said, “is to be sufficiently resourceful and persistent to find ways of putting that knowledge to use and to pursue promising interventions that are on the horizons.”


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