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At the vulnerable adolescent age, the health problems of teenagers include both physical and mental challenges – which we know very little about.
Since the past couple of decades, young people in our country face a rising number of health issues, some of them previously less heard of – for example, cardiac problems and diabetes among teens, and PCOS in young girls. There are also other issues with psychological challenges such as pregnancies, juvenile crimes and suicides among teens.
The reasons may be varied and debatable but are we – as parents, teachers and society -equipped to deal with the challenges of sensitizing our children about these issues and channelizing their abundant energy in constructive, creative ways? Do we even realize that that our children may be suffering from multiple health issues – physical, mental and emotional and also have the courage to accept them?
A 2016 report by UNICEF* states that adolescents form around 16% of the world’s population of 7 billion and around 25% of these live in India. The India Census 2011 reported that every fifth person in India is an adolescent, i.e. between the age of 10 and 19.
Can we really ignore such a large and important segment of our population, when investing in these young citizens can make them more informed, responsive and responsible citizens and also help, in the longer run, in breaking the cycles of inequity and poverty in the country?
Teens speak up about their health concerns
With the aim of sensitizing and involving our young citizens in the decision making process in a democratic manner, Plan India, a child rights organisation providing children, especially girls, with access to education, healthcare, protection and livelihood opportunities – recently organized a Youth Parliament as part of the World Non-Communicable Diseases Congress at PGIMER, Chandigarh. The Youth Parliament had students from school as well as college participating, from the age group of 10 to 24 years.
This youth parliament focused at creating awareness among the participating school students about the causes and impact of non-communicable diseases, malnutrition and mental illnesses and disorders. Groups of highly articulate and excited students from urban and rural areas across 6 Indian states actively participated in the mock parliament session acting as members of Parliament, ministers and prime minister. The event also saw representation from international students, from diverse countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, bringing in wider perspectives from around the globe, including marginalized groups as well.
They expressed their concern about various lifestyle diseases and disorders arising due to environmental degradation, malnutrition, addiction to junk food, tobacco and alcohol etc.
One articulate student spoke about the many children who undergo severe stress due to misconceptions about their physical appearance, fear of rejection by peer groups, and pressure from family and society to conform to certain codes of conduct that may not be relevant today or allow them to exercise their own thinking.
The students also expressed their concern on how myths about puberty, menstruation and sex affect teenagers because these topics are still considered taboo – adolescents cannot really approach parents or elders to clarify the nagging doubts pertaining to changes in their body. This communication gap often results in them gaining incorrect and insufficient knowledge from unreliable sources and forming misconceptions about biological changes, sexual hygiene and safe practices.
Inherited myths and lack of awareness about the importance of a healthy and nutritious diet often leads to children suffering from multiple diseases and stunted growth. Girl children are even more vulnerable to health issues because of gender discrimination. They are often denied a balanced diet due to the misconception that men have to do much harder work and hence they need more nutrition but women stay at home hence they can do with lesser food and even lesser nutrition. As a result, a majority of females in India suffer from chronic anaemia which affects their overall fitness levels, capacity to work, and disturbs their hormone levels and menstrual cycle.
An unhealthy diet coupled with irregular, sedentary lifestyle leads to multiple diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cardiac diseases etc. Lack of physical activity and sports, problem of inadequate and unsafe play areas, addiction to TV and internet, unregulated access to porn sites and books, drugs, tobacco and alcohol products also wreak havoc with the physical and mental health of our children. They can become prone to anxiety and mood disorders too which can cause disturbances in thinking, behavior, energy or emotion that make it difficult to cope with the ordinary demands of life and even lead to violent and suicidal tendencies in them. Given the poor state of awareness about and access to mental health care in India, most young people never receive help in such situations. Isn’t it absolutely necessary then to identify the symptoms, causes and remedies for mental disorders at the earliest, the debators questioned.
After an animated debate, the young citizens reached a consensus on the following suggestions to ensure sound physical and mental health not only for children but for all citizens:
The Charter prepared by the youth has been made part of the Chandigarh Call for Action on Non-Communicable diseases. Plan India envisages to take it forward as the Youth Network on NCD to carry ahead the voices of these children in a more constructive and sustainable manner.
As our children stand at the crossroads between childhood and the adult world, so do societies at large – the crossroads between losing out on the potential of a generation or nurturing them to transform society. And as the global battle to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 forges ahead, it is necessary that India also reaches out to the most vulnerable segment of its population, its children.
All such long term efforts to support the most vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, in disturbed areas, and girls in particular, need each one of us to step in. Make a donation today to support Plan India’s work in the space of child rights, health and welfare. Let’s all work together to make sure that no child is left behind.