The youth today are more exposed to health risks than ever before. From battling opioids to shootings, to online and offline bullying, and high levels of stress, there is an increasing rate of suicides observed amongst the youth today. For caregivers and parents of youth, this translates to having some challenging conversations with their independent youth about their health and safety, and about making smart choices. It is estimated that every year, 2.6 million young people die and most of these deaths are preventable. Nearly 97 percent of these deaths occur in middle and low-income countries. Death rates have been observed to rise sharply from the age of early adolescence (that is 10 to 14 years of age) to young adulthood (20 to 24 years. The causes of death vary by gender and region. While in the last 50 years, mortality rates across all age groups have gone down, but mortality amongst youth has declined at a lesser rate than other age groups. In fact, it has overtaken childhood mortality rate in some of the high-income countries.1,2,3
Youth is a critical phase of life during which many significant physical, psychological, behavioral, and physiological changes take place along with a changing pattern of social relationships and interactions. Youth is also the ideal window of opportunity that sets up the stage for a productive and healthy adulthood, to decrease the risk of having health problems later in life. A wide variety of biological changes take place during the period of puberty, such as an increase in weight and height, completion of skeletal growth, an increase in skeletal mass, changes in body composition, and of course, sexual maturation.
These many changes are typically consistent among adolescents, but there are many individual variations that can become a significant cause of stress on young people and those around them. This type of stress also influences and affects their relationship with other adults and their peers. Here are some of the biggest health challenges facing youth today.
5 Biggest Health Challenges Facing Youth
Sex, Sexually Transmitted Infections, and Pregnancy
A significant risk to the health of the youth today is the many risks associated with unsafe sexual activity. It is necessary to have a detailed sex talk with your child, no matter how uncomfortable it is. However, it is essential to have this discussion to ensure that your adolescent or teenager understands the risks that come with sexual activity, how to practice safe sex, and of course, the importance of consent. The health consequences of teen sex, most commonly sexually transmitted infections and unwanted or accidental pregnancies, can end up having lifelong impacts. Understanding and being aware of facts can help the youth of today overcome the many issues associated with sexual health.
The youth of today is at a much greater risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection as compared to older adults.4 It is estimated that nearly one-fifth of all new HIV diagnoses every year take place in young adults who are between the ages of 13 to 24 years. Half of all the reports, sexually transmitted infections are also observed most commonly in the age group of 15 to 24 years. Furthermore, according to a survey carried out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 46 percent of sexually active teens do not use a condom the last time when they had sex.5
The good news in all this is, though, that the rate of teen pregnancy has witnessed a decline in recent years from an all-time high in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2012, only 29 out of 1000 women in the age group of 15 to 19 years got pregnant. By the year 2016, this figure declined to 18 in 1000 women. According to the CDC, this decline was primarily due to an increase in the use of birth control by teenagers and also an increase in the number of teenagers practicing abstinence.6
Another significant sexual health concern in the youth today is understanding consent, or the agreement between two parties to have sexual activity willingly. Failure to get permission from either one of the partners can ultimately lead to legal consequences. It is, therefore, important to discuss the importance of setting boundaries, communication, and respect for their partners with your teenagers. It is important that youth understand that pressurizing someone to engage in any kind of sexual activity that they are not ready for or taking advantage of someone who is drugged or drunk is never okay. Similarly, if a teenager feels pressured or is uncomfortable in a particular situation, it is important to speak up and raise their voice and immediately leave the place if necessary.7
Rampant Tobacco Use
Tobacco use has emerged as one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States. Furthermore, research by the CDC has found that almost all nicotine addictions tend to begin in young adults.8 By the time they reach the senior year of high school, more than two-thirds of all teenagers have either already tried or are already regularly using various tobacco products.9
The use of smokeless tobacco products as well as cigarettes has seen a decline in the last 25 years, but at the same time, the use of electronic nicotine delivery systems and products has witnessed an exponential growth. While initially, vaping was believed to be a safer option than actually smoking cigarettes, but in 2019, a new lung disease known as an e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury, or EVALI, was identified.10
As per the data derived from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, around 27.1 percent of all high school students and 7.2 percent of middle school students report using some form of tobacco product in the last 30 days. This represented a significant increase over the previous year. During 2017-2018, the use of e-cigarettes by youth went up by nearly 80 percent, with at least one out of five high schoolers admitting to using these products and vaping regularly.9
Underage drinking is another primary health concern facing the youth of today. Consumption of alcohol by underage youth can cause several problems, including poor judgment and decision making, and having difficulty coping at school and with peers. Legal troubles and health problems can also be a cause of underage drinking.
According to a 2019 survey carried out by the CDC, 30 percent of all high school seniors in the US reported drinking alcohol at least once in the last month, while 14 percent said they were into binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as having five or more alcoholic drinks on any occasion for men and four or more alcoholic beverages on occasion for women. The CDC survey reported that over 4000 underage teenagers die from excessive alcohol consumption every year, and there are nearly 120,000 emergency room visits in 12 to 21-year-olds due to excessive alcohol use.11
It is important to make youths understand that alcohol can function has a depressant that, over time, slows down the mind and body. Being under the influence of alcohol also impairs your coordination and slows down the reaction time. Drinking also impairs your thinking, judgment, and vision, causing you to do something you would not otherwise do when you are sober. Alcohol also affects younger people in a different manner than adults and may even have long-lasting intellectual effects on the still-maturing brains of the youth.
It is believed that around one in three adolescents is impacted by bullying. Bullying can be in many forms, be it verbal, physical, social, or cyberbullying that happens online, and most commonly at school. Nearly 30 percent of teenagers admit to bullying others.12 Persistent bullying can cause feelings of rejection, isolation, despair, and exclusion, and over time may lead to anxiety and depression, which can contribute to suicidal behavior. However, most teens who are bullied do not attempt to commit suicide, but the risk is present nevertheless. While any youth can become a victim of bullying, but it has been observed that LGBTQ youth are at a significantly higher risk of being targeted by bullies.
Despite many teens experiencing some form of bullying, only 20 to 30 percent of them go on to report the bullying to an adult.12 It is always better to avoid downplaying the situation in front of your youngster and tell your teen to communicate openly about it.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst youth today. In the years between 2007 and 2017, the rate of suicide amongst adolescents has gone up by 56 percent.13 It is estimated that around one in 11 high school students tries to commit suicide.14
Contributing factors to this high rate of suicide include depression, family problems, loneliness, excessive alcohol abuse, and substance abuse.
The issues that become the cause of suicide are usually not very complicated, but then suicide is never a result of just one or two factors.
Youths who have good communication with either one of their parent or any adult are less likely to indulge in risky behaviors and less likely to suffer from depression. Some of the warning signs of suicidal thoughts in youth to watch out for include:15
- Being isolated
- Feeling like they are a burden
- Increasing anxiety
- Increased substance use
- Increasing rage or anger
- Extreme mood swings
- Feeling trapped
- Feeling like they are in unbearable pain
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness
- Talking or posting about death or wanting to die
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Making plans for suicide
There are many other health issues that are affecting the youth of today, including automobile accidents, gun violence, drugs or substance use, eating disorders, and obesity. The adolescent years can be challenging for not just the youth but also their parents. As teenagers grow up and become independent and form new friendships, it becomes more difficult for parents to keep a watch on their behavior than when they were younger. During this time, youth need guidance to navigate through peer pressure and need to understand how to make smart choices. This is why it is very important to keep lines of communication open with adolescents.
The most important thing for the youth to know is that they are loved and cared for, and they will always have someone to communicate with about their problems. Ensuring that young adults are well-informed and knowledgeable about making healthy and right choices on their own will not only give parents peace of mind, but it is also good for their own well-being and overall health.
- Owen-Smith, A., 2000. Programming for Adolescent Health and Development: WHO/UNFPA/UNICEF Study Group on Programming for Adolescent Health: Technical Report Series 886. Health and Hygiene, 21(3), p.128.
- Population.un.org. 2020. World Population Prospects – Population Division – United Nations. [online] Available at: <https://population.un.org/wpp/> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- Un.org. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/documents/ch04.pdf> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- Shannon, C.L. and Klausner, J.D., 2018. The growing epidemic of sexually transmitted infections in adolescents: a neglected population. Current opinion in pediatrics, 30(1), p.137.
- Cdc.gov. 2020. Sexual Risk Behaviors Can Lead To HIV, STDS, & Teen Pregnancy | Adolescent And School Health | CDC. [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/#3> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- Cdc.gov. 2020. About Teen Pregnancy | CDC. [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/teenpregnancy/about/index.htm> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- A-Z, T. and Gender, S., 2020. How To Talk To Kids About Sex And Consent. [online] Child Mind Institute. Available at: <https://childmind.org/article/how-talk-kids-sex-consent-boundaries/> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- Gentzke, A.S., Creamer, M., Cullen, K.A., Ambrose, B.K., Willis, G., Jamal, A. and King, B.A., 2019. Vital signs: tobacco product use among middle and high school students—United States, 2011–2018. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(6), p.157.
- Hhs.gov. 2020. Adolescent Health | HHS Office Of Population Affairs. [online] Available at: <https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-development/substance-use/drugs/tobacco/trends/index.html> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2020. Respiratory Illnesses Associated With Use Of Vaping Products. [online] Available at: <https://www.fda.gov/news-events/public-health-focus/lung-injuries-associated-use-vaping-products> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- Cdc.gov. 2020. Underage Drinking | CDC. [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- StopBullying.gov. 2020. Facts About Bullying. [online] Available at: <https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/facts#stats> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- Cdc.gov. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db352-h.pdf> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- New England Journal of Medicine. 2020. The Major Causes Of Death In Children And Adolescents In The United States | NEJM. [online] Available at: <https://dx.doi.org/10.1056%2FNEJMsr1804754> [Accessed 3 October 2020].
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020. More Than A Mental Health Problem. [online] Available at: <https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/index.html> [Accessed 3 October 2020]