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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

June 26, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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.

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."

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."

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?

"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."

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