Teenagers and young adults participate in many unhealthy behaviors. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, risky behaviors can include smoking, underage drinking, unhealthy eating, high-risk sexual activities and physical inactivity. Also on the list are inconsistent use of seat belts, carrying a weapon or riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking. These poor choices lead to the accidents and injuries that cause approximately 75 percent of adolescent deaths.
Education is a key to combating those behaviors. Comprehensive health education and access to resources that promote healthy lifestyles help create young adults who have the information and confidence to make better choices.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a direct correlation between health and academic success: "Health-risk behaviors such as substance use, violence and physical inactivity are consistently linked to academic failure and often affect students' school attendance, grades, test scores and ability to pay attention in class."
Research has shown that healthy students learn better. Students in pain, or dealing with an untreated medical condition, or living with uncontrolled depression or anxiety are not likely to excel in school.
The stress and anxiety of college students -- away from their parents for the first time, learning to be independent and assuming responsibility for their own health -- encourage some to participate in risk-taking behaviors in an attempt to cope. Health and wellness information provided within the school setting improves both health and academic achievement. The school setting is an ideal community to address the top health issues facing students: stress, sleep difficulties, work challenges, abusive relationships, sexual behavior risks, obesity, eating disorders, substance abuse and depression.
Mental health issues also are very prevalent within this age group. Approximately six million to nine million teens have serious emotional disturbances, and research shows that one in five children aged 9 to 17 experience symptoms of mental health issues that cause some level of impairment in a given year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death, and it is estimated that fewer than 20 percent of these teens receive mental health services.
Preliminary research has shown that focusing on the risks alone is not enough to improve long-term health and well-being. The CDC advocates for an equally important focus on protective factors. Due to the many societal groups that affect adolescent health, a collaborative community effort to provide important health-promotion information is needed for this at-risk population.
The Weber State University School of Nursing, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, has taken on this challenge in its course "Nursing 4400 Population Health." Nursing students collaborate in teams with local schools to select a current health issue. Through this course, students have been involved in health-education campaigns across the state, working with high schools, junior high schools, technology colleges and universities.
Projects have included information about the dangers of energy drinks, depression and suicide prevention, prevention of sexually transmitted infections, coping skills, exercise and healthy eating patterns, bullying prevention, smoking cessation, and drug and alcohol prevention. Students have also trained school faculty and staff in how to respond to health emergencies such as asthma attacks, insulin shock and severe allergic reactions. This community service has addressed many of teens' at-risk behaviors. The projects have been well received by the students and the community.
Adolescence and young adulthood are the times where patterns and behaviors -- such as eating, exercise and tobacco use -- are established, and those choices can either lead to healthy living or chronic diseases.
WSU's School of Nursing is engaged in health promotion and disease prevention activities to help students learn coping skills, reduce life stressors and avoid risks. Schools and communities must combine forces to provide a safe and nurturing environment that provides young adults the competence and confidence to thrive as healthy, productive members of society.
Dr. Collette Renstrom is a Weber State University assistant nursing professor.