This medical report offers a health plan for the use of adolescent and young adult (AYA) persons living in the United States, focusing particularly on adolescent persons aged 10-17.
It begins by detailing the purpose of the health plan and proffering a description of the affected demographic.
It then considers means by which nurses and nurse practitioners can help in the promotion of health and lifelong learning within this particular subpopulation.
The nurse can and should play a critical role in protecting our younger and more vulnerable citizens from the array of health threats that they will face in their daily lives.
These threats hail from a spectrum of sources and can infringe upon both mental and physical health.
Young adults (aged 18-25) as well as adolescents live in an increasingly complex global and multicultural world in which they are beset by threats from all directions.
These include only readily apparent issues and problems such as are routinely discussed on the daily news broadcasts, but also subtler issues that do not receive adequate attention.
In the case of mental health threats in particular, young persons are at risk of encountering any number of pernicious problems, including the palpable possibility of chronic mental health conditions such as addictions that may impair their ability to function in society and may even become sufficiently dire to threaten their very lives.
Early intervention is necessary to ensure that young persons do not stray from the path that leads to health and prosperity.
Nurses are often a primary contact for such persons, serving, as they do, in environments ranging from perinatal healthcare service providers to schools and general medical practices.
Consequently, it is time for nurses to step up to the plate and willingly accept the responsibilities that they can readily shoulder to play vitally formative, positive roles in the lives of adolescents and young adults.
The AYA Threat Picture
AYA find themselves in a critical transitional period of their lives.
They are exposed to a tremendous and increasing variety of sources of information, some positive and some negative, but have not fully developed the wisdom and maturity required to pick and choose from these sources so that the results are always healthful from either the mental or the physical perspective.
In many cases, AYA first develop bad habits that may significantly impair their health, such as smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol to excess, and taking illegal drugs, during this period of their lives.
They are particularly exposed to peer pressure that can induce them to make poor decisions based upon the perceived desire to belong to the group and to be accepted rather than to be left behind due to failure to try new things that “everybody’s doing.”
At the same time, during this crucial period in their lives, AYA—particularly those who may already face chronic health conditions—are faced with sea changes to the insurance coverage for which they are eligible and the nature of the mental and physical support programs that their policies may provide.
Most causes of illness and death among AYA are preventable and are linked to an array of social factors.
What is particularly troubling is that statistical studies have firmly established that AYA exposed to media portrayals of violence, smoking, and drinking alcohol are more likely to develop bad habits with respect to these issues than are more sheltered peers who are not so exposed.
At the same time, the establishment of loving, caring relationships with responsible adults can be a leading factor in keeping children on the straight and narrow and ensuring to the extent possible that they do not experiment with harmful behaviors in the first place, let alone embrace them.
By way of contrast, those AYA who grow up in distressed neighborhoods with high rates of poverty are more exposed than their peers to deleterious behaviors, including violence, poor hygiene, delinquency, and even risky sexual behaviors.
Threats in Specific
The schedule of mental and physical health threats facing AYA is prodigious.
While it is clearly outside the scope of this report fully to engage with each one of them and outline remedial measures, it is necessary to capture them for posterity so that the most pernicious among them can be selected for closer analysis.
A host of mental disorders leads the list, fully half of such disorders manifesting by age 14 while nearly three-quarters of them become evident by age 24.
The abuse of dangerous substances—whether legal ones such as tobacco and alcohol or illegal ones—is intimately intertwined with a variety of other mental health problems.
Poor nutritional habits that lead to excess body weight and frank obesity impose an undue strain on the heart and can pose a host of health issues later in life.
Both sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted teen pregnancies result from insufficiently careful sexual habits.
Dropping out of school in response to academic or environmental pressures can lead to limited employment opportunities that may even result in homelessness.
Both homicide and suicide may result from exposure to deleterious influences from many sectors, including popular music.
Finally, intolerably many deaths of young people result from risky driving habits.
How Nurses Can Help
School nurses in particular can play a vital role as far as many of these legitimate imperilments of young people are concerned.
The school nurse is exposed to a wide array of young patients, some of whom obviously share more openly than others.
However, given the amount of information to which she is daily exposed, the school nurse is capable of “playing detective,” so to speak, and identifying incipient problems that may affect everyone, for example, a popular “big man on campus” having taken up cigarette smoking or the use of illegal drugs.
By way of their intimate discussions with individual students, nurses are capable of establishing bonds of trust whereby they can subsequently play formative roles in these young persons’ lives.
At the same time, school nurses are capable of orchestrating campaigns that provide information about steps that young persons can take to avoid the biggest threats to their mental and physical health.
For example, they can actively encourage students to expend less time being swept into and enraptured by the world of social media, which has been proven to engender feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation, and being left out.
At the same time, they can direct students toward both online and printed resources that help them make sharper decisions and form better habits, thereby establishing a solid foundation for a lifetime of healthful behaviors.
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Nurses both in and outside of schools can assist with the preparation of learning materials that help young people understand the true nature of the threats arrayed against them.
They must be careful to avoid the appearance of being “square” by automatically gainsaying anything that young people may consider fun and challenging, such as experimenting with illegal drugs or driving recklessly.
They can arrange with classroom teachers to show films that particularly graphically demonstrate the dangers of risk-taking behaviors.
Insofar as “a picture is worth a thousand words,” this should prove far more effective than merely cloying young persons with unexciting fact sheets that cloy the reader with statistics and vague warnings.