Understanding adolescent health problems
Roughly one in six of the world’s population, or 1.2 billion people, are aged between 10 to 19. Most are healthy, but the number of deaths, injuries and preventable physical and mental illnesses are still a looming health concern, even in Australia.
The ability for a teenager to properly grow and develop can be knocked around by illness, and their current and future health can be threatened by a lack of physical exercise, alcohol or tobacco use, unprotected sex, undiagnosed or untreated psychological problems, and exposure to violence.
The promotion of healthy behaviours during adolescence is critical to help prevent the development of health problems and to help keep our kids alive and well into adulthood.
The ages between 10 and 24 contain a very profound set of changes in the human body, coming only close to infancy in significance. This is the period of time where a person develops the cognitive, physical, emotional, social and economic resources that are the foundation of their later lives.
The health needs of teenagers change a lot during this time, primarily due to the introduction of new behaviours – smoking, sex, alcohol, drugs, diet – and the emergence of psychological changes – 75 per cent of mental health problems develop before the age of 25. Reproductive needs also emerge, with the introduction of birth control requirements, and education needs changing regarding sexual safety and consequences. Additionally, the teenage years are when we have different ideas about our gender identity and sexual orientation. How we fit into society becomes a very real and very big set of sometimes unanswerable or overwhelming questions. Our risk of injury increases from accidents, ‘misadventure’, and road accidents, especially in teenage boys, who are hurt at many times the rate of teenage girls. Chronic conditions can play a role, including any form of disability or illness.
Health services can play a huge part in keeping teens educated, healthy and safe.
Overview of the main health issues facing our young people
- Unwanted pregnancy and early childbirth
- Infectious diseases including sexually transmitted infections
- Mental health and wellbeing
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Nutrition and malnutrition
Pregnancy and childbirth for teenage girls
Better access to information and services about contraception can reduce the number of teenage girls becoming pregnant and giving birth at a young age. There should also be access to quality care and educational services.
Sex education is a high priority, especially for at-risk teens, though all teenagers deserve high quality sex education so they can make informed choices about their behaviour. Young women having babies need a great deal of support from their communities and families, and their healthcare practitioners. Easy access to birth control is an important part of managing teen pregnancies.
Infectious diseases including sexually transmitted infections
Infectious diseases can include contractible infections like the measles and chickenpox, but extends to arguably the more pressing problem of sexually transmitted infections. Keeping a close eye on a teenager’s wellbeing extends into many areas of their lives, with the most difficult to manage being unprotected sex and sexually transmitted infections. Again, sex education, access to birth control (condoms), and knowing the signs of infection are critical for early detection and treatment. Having a practitioner your child trusts is also imperative to their intimate wellbeing.
Infections are treatable once discovered, so teaching your children the early signs of problematic infections is key to reducing the damage (or in some cases death) due to treatable infections.
Mental health and wellbeing
Depression is the third leading cause of disability and illness in adolescents, while suicide is the third leading cause of death, with those in the Indigenous and LGBTI community the most at risk. The risk of developing a mental health problem can be increased through poverty, humiliation, violence and feeling devalued, which at least for the first part of life, rests primarily in caregivers’ hands.
Providing children and adolescents with psychological support and encouragement can help promote good mental health and build critical life and coping skills.
Psychological wellbeing can be supported by offering teens access to support services, where they can openly discuss issues that are affecting them that they don’t want to talk to their parents about. This might include sexual orientation and gender questions, relationship worries, sex, drugs and alcohol.
Violence can be a major issue for both teenage boys and teenage girls. One in 10 girls under the age of 20 report having experienced sexual violence, with statistics in Australia regarding sexual harassment, rape, and assault alarming.
Encouraging good relationships between parents and children in early life, providing life skills education, and reducing access to weapons, drugs and alcohol can help prevent violence by keeping kids out of dangerous situations where possible. Ongoing care and support for teenage survivors of violence can assist in dealing with the physical and psychological consequences.
Alcohol and drugs
Harmful drinking among teenagers is a concern; alcohol reduces inhibitions, leading to risky behaviour. Alcohol-related behaviour is a leading cause of injuries, violence and death in Australia, and abuse of alcohol can lead to health problems later in life and brain damage in the growing teenage brain.
Drug use among 15-19-year-olds is a global concern. Drug control should focus on reducing demand and supply where possible, and the implementation of successful intervention programs. Education is key.
Unintentional and accidental injuries are the leading cause of disability and death among teenagers, with growing (and therefore weaker) bones and muscles being particularly prone to injuries due to sports and accidents.
Car accidents are a major cause of injury to teens, but drowning is a major cause of death, with most drownings boys. Teaching children and teens how to swim is essential in preventing these deaths, but also educating kids on safe behaviour around the water, lifesaving, and resuscitation.
Nutrition and malnutrition
Teenagers are famous for bad eating habits, particularly girls, but a growing number of boys. Eating disorders give a growing body a bad start to life, interrupting the proper development of tissue by depriving it of nutrients. This is a major mental health concern too, with the rate of body dysmorphic teenagers growing by the day thanks to body-focused culture and media.
Conversely, we live in a rich country that affords us easy access to poor-quality foods, making obesity another growing problem. Young people’s weight is challenged daily by access to a large range of food choices, tempting advertising and a lack of exercise as outdoors becomes perceived as being more dangerous, and screen time dominates. Teaching our kids about food and eating has become critical.