Teaching Self-Advocacy through Mentorship: How to Amplify the Voices of Youth

Chris Oshana is a sophomore at the University of Michigan studying Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience. He hopes to inspire other youth to advocate for themselves in all aspects of their lives.

As an adolescent, I never really knew how to advocate for myself in a health care setting. Growing up, my parents—who emigrated from Iraq to America in 1994—took me to an Iraqi doctor that was well known in our community. Unfortunately, this doctor was stuck in their ways from practicing medicine in Iraq. They purely focused on my physical health, not taking into account to my mental health or comfort level during my visits. One main issue I had is that I was never given the chance to speak with my provider alone. In addition, when asked about sexual health or substance use, the questions were always posed in a “you’re a good kid, you don’t do these things, right?” type of way, without giving me a chance to actually answer. Additionally, when asking about my life aspirations, the doctor always reinforced the stereotype of pushing me to become a doctor, because apparently being a doctor is the only noble career in our society. All of these experiences left a bad taste in my mouth, and I never learned how to properly communicate with my health care provider. I fear this experience is one that is far too common for many youth across the country. They lack the abilities to advocate for themselves due to social factors that pressure them and don’t allow them to grow into independence.

Youth, in general, are a marginalized population. Although we are called “the great future of society”, we are rarely treated or acknowledged as such. We are often looked down upon for our lack of experience, knowledge, and maturity. This is especially the case for youth of color, LGBTQ+ youth, and youth who come from a lower social class. The intersectionality of our identities often has a negative synergistic effect on our subjective legitimacy in “adult” conversations. Our societal structures lead to the marginalization of youth; whether it is intentional or accidental, the impact is still the same.

My negative interactions with my health care provider continued into high school, until I became involved in youth health care advocacy work. As a 16 year old, I joined The Adolescent Champion Teen Advisory Council (TAC TAC) at Michigan Medicine’s Adolescent Health Initiative (AHI). TAC TAC gave me the opportunity to voice my opinion on AHI’s programs and projects, which are sent out to health care providers across 40 states. The mentorship offered to me by adult allies taught me how to effectively advocate for myself as a young person. I learned the importance of taking charge of my health care.

Now serving on the School-Based Health Alliance’s YAC, I recognize how school-based health center (SBHC) employees can teach youth to advocate for themselves the same way that my adult allies did at AHI. SBHC employees likely have more access to youth, considering they work in the schools that these youth attend. To anyone who works at an SBHC: I urge you to use your privilege as an adult to amplify youth voice in your health centers, schools, and community. Working to create an inclusive, welcoming environment where you can teach youth how to be autonomous is vital. We understand that as a health care professional in an SBHC, you are already working tirelessly to treat students. However, making small changes to the way you provide care can help the youth you serve become an advocate for themselves and their health.

You can be a mentor to youth through long-term commitments, like a youth council, or through your day-to-day interactions when providing care. If you aren’t sure where to get started, here are a few tips:

  1. For starters, ensure you are always open, honest, and transparent with youth who come into your SBHC. In the provider-patient relationship, trust is a must!
  2. Make your SBHC a place where you encourage youth to be responsible for their health care. Put up posters, like this one from TAC TAC, to help youth take charge of their health care.
    Take Charge of Your Health Care, 20161
  3. Compile a fact sheet about what health rights youth have at certain ages It’s important to note that these laws differ from state to state, so make sure to do your research.
  4. If possible, start your own youth advisory council to give your local youth an open forum. As the group’s facilitator and ally, you could mentor them to take charge of their own health. Through this work, you are amplifying their voices and helping them grow into young adults.
  5. At the end of every appointment, make it known that you are there to serve as a mentor for these youth. In doing so, they will become health care advocates for themselves, and teach others to do the same.

Incorporating changes like these into your interactions with youth can help them slowly take charge of their own health care. In doing this, you could cause a domino effect in your community; youth, without knowing they are doing so, will teach one another how to become more self-reliant when navigating our complex healthcare system in the United States. Without your mentorship, we would not be able to accomplish the great things we do each and every day.


  1. Brauer R. TAC TAC. Adolescent Health Initiative. https://www.umhs-adolescenthealth.org/about-us/tactac/. Published October 12, 2020. Accessed October 14, 2020.