The Importance of Adolescent Health
By Mike R. Fraser, PhD
If we think about where we may have the most impact as public health professionals — child and adolescent health should come to the top of our list. The things we do to assure that our children and teenagers are healthy will put them on a trajectory toward good health. Conversely, not paying attention to the specific health needs of children and adolescents will at best result in coincidental good health outcomes and at worst result in poor health for generations to come. Adolescent health is a particularly significant area for public health intervention. As our children mentally and physically become adults the steps we take to assure our teens have the information and community resources they need to make healthy decisions are vital. Why then, do we spend so little time thinking about the health needs of adolescents at this critical period in their development?
Maybe it is because it is hard to imagine our young people as individuals taking charge of their health and moving from childhood dependence on parents and peers toward becoming self-actualized adults that can make healthy decisions about their futures. But we have to. The influences on teens are immense — peers, television, parents, school, church and sports. If we do not provide information about what healthy behaviors look like and the consequences of making bad choices about eating, exercise, and sex, other factors will intervene influencing their health for years to come.
As maternal and child health professionals we have a responsibility to make sure our adolescent health programs are robust and vital, providing health resources to the teens in our states and the professionals that serve them. Too often our maternal and child health programs address the needs of young children and early childhood development and then skip the teen years only to pick up when a young person becomes an expectant mother or father. Many adolescent health programs focus only on sex and postponing sex as long as possible. While important, sex education is just one component of adolescent health. Dealing with how our minds, bodies, and spirits change from childhood to adolescence should all be part of comprehensive adolescent health programs.
The opportunity to significantly impact future health outcomes by comprehensively addressing the physical and mental health needs of adolescents is exciting. How cool is it to see young people empowered to make healthy decisions and talk to their peers, parents and others about the kind of people they are, and want to be, in the future? As we look toward building systems that assure healthy women, children, and families we have to make sure we are also including adolescents and the people that work with them as well. This issue of Pulse is a great resource for doing just that — affirming the importance of adolescent health in maternal and child health programs and working to make sure that states have resources to include adolescents in their work. I look forward to learning from all of you about how you work to assure adolescents have what they need to grow into healthy adulthood. Moving forward, please let us know what more we can do to support your state adolescent health programs and work with partners to develop resources and policies that promote health for all people we serve, including our precious (though oftentimes difficult!) adolescents.