Written by Susie Williams | Student, Young Advisor, Journalist and NHS Youth Forum representative with a passion for the sciences, arts and writing about current affairs
When looking at the relationship between young people and health, the question must be considered: what does ‘healthy’ mean or look like today?
It is no secret that globally we are seeing record rates of obesity, mental illness, diabetes, cancer, other illnesses, and disease, but do we really understand the extent to which this is affecting all ages of our youth? Or, are we seeing this but choosing to accept a standard of health that falls far below the mark of what living a truly vital life looks like both for ourselves, our children, and the young people in our communities? Is ‘healthy’ now a word used to describe someone absent of cancer, within the ‘normal BMI range’ but who suffers with depression?
To look at the whole picture and true state of young people’s health, equal attention should be given to anxiety as to obesity, or self-harm as child cancer, because mental and physical health go hand in hand to make up an individual’s overall wellbeing. A shocking reality has been revealed through observing and considering the welfare of young people in the UK over recent years:
- Nearly 1 in 3 of 2–15 year olds are overweight or obese as of 2015/161
- Around 25% of young people have self-harmed on at least one occasion
- One in four young people experience suicidal thoughts2
- There has been a >20% increase in hospital admissions due to epilepsy and asthma from 2003–2007, and an overall increase in long-term conditions including diabetes also among 10–19 year olds3
- In recent years, only 21% of boys and 16% of girls aged 5–15 met the recommendations for Physical Activity set by the Chief Medical Officers of the UK4
What Is Going on Here? And What Are We Doing About It?
In the UK, we have services to treat young people with mental illness (such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services [CAMHS]), and there are organisations working within schools or with youth to promote more physical activity, healthier eating, alcohol, and drug awareness etc., but this method of providing the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ or treating conditions once they have already developed (such as with CAMHS and the way healthcare works in general) is not looking at why young people are living this way in the first place, or why mental health conditions are going through the roof.
Could it be that the ‘why’ has something to do with how we choose to live, the role models around young people, and what society is selling to them? Regarding the latter, not only is the media offering a constant bombardment of how young women and men ‘should’ look, act, and be, which is reciprocated through magazines, television, and social media, but also fast food is more accessible than ever before in mass, as is technology, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and more. If these juxtaposed products e.g. supersized fast food versus excessively thin fashion models are advertised left, right, and centre, then it would be reasonable to assume that some young people might feel confused. Who are they meant to be? How are they meant to live?
This also takes away from the fact that every person on the planet is unique and that a healthy way of living for one individual may be completely different to another; the reality is that we have a reflection of ‘thin beauty’ or perfection from the media, obesity from food retail, distraction and recklessness from alcohol advertising, television, and the music industry. We do not therefore find out for ourselves what it is that makes us feel fit, healthy, and well.
Having ideals, images, and expectations served up to us constantly without any pinch of salt is contributing hugely to how young people feel mentally and their activity levels. It is clear to see that we do not have a generation of healthy or inspired youth, but how do we change this?
If we can see that children and young people respond to how society is around them and what ways of living are reflected back to them by role models, the media and so forth, then is it possible that the responsibility of raising them in a way that they feel empowered to look after their wellbeing is down to everyone rather than just their parents or organisations looking to address things when they go wrong?
Is it possible that to have a generation of youth inspired to look after themselves we need to have generations of healthy parents, teachers, doctors, journalists, shop attendants, news presenters, and engineers rather than a society where ill-health sells?
Health is not a dirty word and if we started to redefine it and dissolve the bastardised compromise accepted today through changing the way in which we choose to live, then there is no doubt children and young people would catch on. After all, this is the 21st Century and you never know the audience your actions are reaching.
- Public Health England. Child Obesity. 2017. Available at: http://www.noo.org.uk/NOO_about_obesity/child_obesity. Last accessed: 6 January 2017.
- Young Minds. Mental Health Statistics. 2017. Available at: http://www.youngminds.org.uk/about/whats_the_problem/mental_health_statistics. Last accessed: 6 January 2017.
- Donaldson L. Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report. 2007. Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130107105354/http:/www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/@dh/@en/documents/digitalasset/dh_086193.pdf. Last accessed: 6 January 2017.
- British Heart Foundation. Physical Activity Statistics 2015. 2015. Available at: https://www.bhf.org.uk/publications/statistics/physical-activity-statistics-2015. Last accessed 6 January 2017.