OPED: Teen Health Week recognizes unique health needs

Pennsylvania Medical Society

The teen years are a time of rapid physical and emotional growth that create unique needs for this age group and are distinctly different from those of children or adults.  And, with nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians between the age of 10 and 19, there’s good reason to pay closer attention to the health of this age group in the Keystone State.

A group shot with Pa. teens taken at the signing ceremony.

Stepping in to do so are state officials and physicians with Gov. Tom Wolf proclaiming this week as the first-ever Pennsylvania Teen Health Week, a week focused specifically on the important topic of holistic health in teenagers.  Dedicating a week to Teen Health possibly makes Pennsylvania the first state to have such a statewide proclamation and observance.  The week kicked off with a formal presentation of Gov. Wolf’s proclamation by Pennsylvania Physician General Rachel Levine, MD during a ceremony at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Why a week focused on Pennsylvania Teen Health?

Promoting healthy behavior in the teens promotes a healthy population in general, which, in turn, benefits everyone, resulting in lower health care costs, a healthier and more productive workforce, and individuals who are better equipped to manage their own health and health care.

Many wrongly assume that teen health is synonymous with sexual health. However, teen health encompasses far more.  Health behaviors resulting in illness later in life that start or are reinforced in the teen years include substance abuse, diet and exercise habits, violence, and mental illness.   Specifically, worldwide, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and as many as half of mental health disorders start by the age of 14 with many left untreated.   Sexual development occurs during these years, and it is critical to teach youth means to reduce unwanted pregnancy and communicable diseases such as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In our Pennsylvania teens:

  • The Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) demonstrated that nearly half of students have used alcohol at least once in their lifetime; and about 10 percent of surveyed students reported binge drinking (five or more drinks in one session) at least once in the preceding two weeks, with more than 20 percent of 12th graders reporting doing so.  One in 10 students reported having used marijuana at least once in the past 30 days, including more than 20 percent of 12th graders.

  • Nearly 20 percent of surveyed PA students indicate having been threatened at school at least once in the past year, with 7 percent of all students saying they’ve been actually attacked at school.  Dating violence is occurs in PA teen relationships as it does nationwide.  Self-harm behaviors are not uncommon among our youth. 

  • Nearly one in three Pennsylvania students report feeling depressed or sad most days in the past year.  More than 15 percent of students in all grades combined indicated they had considered suicide in their lifetime, including 7 percent of 6th graders and 20 percent of 10th graders. 

  • More than a quarter of youth in Pennsylvania are overweight or obese, eat fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended, and consume too many sugary beverages.  Fewer than one in four students obtained the recommended 60 minutes of exercise daily, and, worse, more than a tenth did not obtain even 60 minutes of exercise once in the preceding week.   

  • More than 10,000 babies were born to Pennsylvania teens in 2011.   While Pennsylvania has similar rates of STD occurrence in teens to that of the US as whole, gonorrhea occurs at a higher rate in PA youth. 

It is often described that the adolescent brain develops its reward pathways faster than it develops pathways responsible for planning and emotional control, but often what is less discussed is the remarkable capacity for the adolescent brain to adapt and change.   Considering both of these factors makes it evident that exploring and experimentation are normal activities during teen years, and also that questioning, learning, and engaging with accurate health information will help adolescents develop the necessary skills to advocate for their own health.

Pennsylvania Teen Health Week has been established as a collaborative effort between the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Department of Health with the support of the Pennsylvania Medical Society to help teens build these skills.  Since adolescents often are agents of change, including them in discussions and really listening to what they have to say about improving adolescent health behaviors is critical.  Furthermore, the establishment of a Teen Health Week calls upon adults and health care and educational institutions to focus on the health needs of this special population.

— Laura A. Offutt MD is a member, College of Physicians of Philadelphia Member, Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine Member, American College of Physicians Member, Pennsylvania Medical Society

— Robert G.  Sharrar MD is a Fellow, College of Physicians of Philadelphia Chair, Section on Public Health & Preventive Medicine, College of Physicians

Dr. Robert Sharrar
Dr, Laura Offutt