Prioritising Adolescent Health: Working with Young People to Build a Healthier and More Inclusive Future

A group of diverse young people listen to a lecture in Brazil.

By Allyson Todd, Rebecca Raeside and Dr Stephanie Partridge, from the Engagement and Co-design Research Hub at The University of Sydney

The theme for this year’s International Adolescent Health Week #IAHW23 (19-25 March) is working with and for young people to build a healthier and more inclusive future.

Adolescents are an underserved population that needs targeted support to improve their health and well-being now, into adulthood, and for the next generation of children. It’s termed ‘the triple dividend’.

The direct and indirect impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent health and well-being have reinforced the importance of health promotion and services being in place to support the well-being of adolescents.

The pandemic and associated lockdowns led to significant physical and mental health challenges for youth living in Australia, including weight gain and increases in the prevalence of depression and anxiety. This was due to disruptions to everyday life including the rise of social media, the extensive promotion of unhealthy foods, and barriers to being physically active.

Adolescent well-being is a societal good, and is central to the Sustainable Development Goals. But today’s society puts them at an increased risk of being overweight in adulthood and predisposes them to a greater risk of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Governments and health organisations need to provide age-appropriate health promotion and intervention for adolescents. Many behaviours that contribute to lifelong health and well-being are solidified during youth. Adolescents are rarely recognised as a unique population group and are far too often grouped with children or neglected all together. For example, a critical analysis of obesity prevention and management services for adolescents within NSW found limited evidence-based support against best practice recommendations for adolescents.

Failure to address obesity is projected to cost the Australian government $87.7 billion by 2032. Additionally, half of all mental disorders start by the time a young person is 14 years old, highlighting the importance of addressing youth mental health. Caring for young people with mental health issues is costing Australian families $234 million per year. Therefore, there is a critical need to improve adolescent’s lifestyle health behaviours, including physical and mental health, as they transition into adulthood.

With 1.8 billion adolescents worldwide, prioritising adolescent health promotion in global research, planning, and policies is imperative. To effectively address the physical and mental health challenges faced by young people and prevent chronic diseases, it is crucial to collaborate with them and develop holistic programs that support their overall well-being. The NSW Youth Health Framework recognises the importance of working with young people and fostering the development of programs that respond to their unique needs. In fact, young people themselves have urged researchers to engage with them as equal partners, listen to their perspectives, and work together to find solutions. The Health Advisory Panel for Youth at The University of Sydney (HAPYUS) highlights chronic diseases, climate change, and mental health as interconnected issues that are of paramount concern to young people.

Addressing the gap: Are digital health strategies the solution? 

The National Preventive Health Strategy calls on public health professionals and key stakeholders to “embrace the digital revolution”. Additionally, the World Health Organization says digital health strategies have the capacity to improve the reach and impact of targeted, youth oriented support.

Text-messaging is the main form of everyday communication among adolescents and offers a potential equitable solution to support and improve their lifestyle health behaviours. More than 90% of adolescents own a mobile phone, highlighting the potential high reach to offer youth centred support.

I am a young person and I want to get involved

Researchers from the Engagement and Co-design Research Hub have collaborated with young people to co-design two text-message programs. They are currently being tested in clinical trials and are recruiting Australia wide:

  • TEXTBITES for adolescents aged 13-18 years who are above a healthy weight.
  • Health4Me for adolescents aged 12-18 years. Text-message topics include healthy eating, physical activity, sleep, mental health, body image, and planetary health.

I am a professional interested in adolescent health, and I want to get involved

2023 marks the Global Forum for Adolescents and you can join the largest-ever gathering for adolescent well-being. The forum is a key aspect for the 1.8 Billion Young People for Change campaign, which aims to improve adolescent health and wellbeing. We encourage you to learn more about the campaign and how you can help.

International Adolescent Health Week aims to inspire people to collectively work together to advocate and promote adolescent health. We are interested to hear peoples’ perspectives on the support and potential public health of digital health prevention programs for adolescents, and potential pathways for future implementation of these programs. If you would like to get involved, you can express your interest here.

Image: Matheus Bertelli/Pexels

Follow the authors on Twitter: @allyson_todd_, @RebeccaRaeside, @DrStephaniePart



Leave a Reply