Adolescents call for action on health from world leaders
We asked adolescents what they wanted United Nations delegates to know about the challenges they face in relation to healthcare – this what they said.
On September 23rd, for the first time, the UN General Assembly will host a high-level meeting focusing on Universal Health Coverage. The objective: to discuss how best to ensure all people have access to the health care they need, when and where they need it, without facing financial hardship.
Adolescents currently make up one in six of the world’s population. They face health challenges that are complex and unique, including mental health, early pregnancy and childbirth, violence and social pressures. Many risks for the development of NCDs come from behaviours that begin or are established in adolescence, including tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy diets, and lack of exercise.
We have done just that. We handed the floor to the adolescents we work with in India, Kenya and Brazil through our Young Health Programme, a disease prevention programme we co-founded with AstraZeneca in 2010. We asked them to share their experiences and ideas in conversation, and then write them down on postcards that can be sent directly to those in power. Today we are publishing their responses in a new Adolescent Health Manifesto, with the aim of ensuring their voices are heard in this important global health conversation. And they have a lot to say to world leaders converging in New York.
In other words, get adolescent health right and the outlook for lifelong health improves dramatically. And to do that, everyone involved needs to start by actually listening to adolescents – not just to understand the problems better, but to find creative solutions that really work for them.
So, Plan International has handed the floor to the adolescents we work with through our Young Health Programme partnership with AstraZeneca in India, Kenya and Brazil. We asked them what the main barriers to effective and accessible healthcare are and what they would like to say to decision makers at the UN General Assembly.
What challenges do adolescents face?
Gender and societal pressures
Firstly, they told us that the problems they face are not just biological, they are also hugely influenced by social pressures. They spoke frankly about sex and sexuality, sharing stories of adolescent girls left ignorant of bodily changes like periods; being harassed and pressurised into sexual relationships; and forced from school into early marriage.
– Heena, 18, India
Across Kenya, India and Brazil, the teenagers we work with were clear that for them, mental health is at least as important as physical. They talked about the terrible toll of problems like depression and addiction and the compounding effects of stigma – and they were clear about the complex factors involved in psychological illness: poverty, social pressure, ignorance and lack of support. Young people felt their voices were not being listened to.
– Derick, 13, Kenya
There’s no question that the challenges are complex. But adolescents are confident not just that there’s a way forward, but that some simple, practical changes would make a huge difference to them. For example, several said that they struggled to access health services because clinic timings clashed with the school day, costs were too high, or staff lacked expertise. Other practical ideas include integrating health and education, for example appointing health counsellors in schools and incorporating health education into the curriculum.
- Sonia, 17, India
Adolescents as partners not patients
Overall, they observed that the best way to make sure adolescent health services succeed was to design them with adolescents, not just for them. They want to be partners, not just patients – able and willing to contribute from the earliest stages of ideas and designs, through to being part of service delivery and finally evaluation and learning.
And in addition to service provision, they want authorities to understand the importance of thinking holistically, and not just medically – tackling policy and public health issues such as road traffic safety, access to tobacco and alcohol and healthy eating.
What can we do to support them?
We are publishing adolescents' responses, experiences and ideas in a new Adolescent Health Manifesto, intended to put their voices at the heart of the discussion.
For teenagers in Kenya, Brazil and India, New York and the hallowed halls of the United Nations feel like a world away. But we are here to bridge the gap. I’ll be taking this manifesto to New York and doing my best to make sure these messages are delivered to those who can act on them.
We’ll also be sharing the young peoples’ postcards with decision makers on our social media channels. You can help by reading, listening, liking and sharing them – and especially by sending them on to those in power.
Once in New York we’ll be making the case for focussing on adolescent health in other ways too. We’ll be sharing our recent expert policy report, Adolescent Health: The Missing Population in Universal Health Coverage, published in partnership with WHO, UNICEF, PMNCH, IAAH and others, which lays out the compelling technical evidence for focussing on this age group. Along with these organisations, we will host a reception for those attending the high-level meeting where they will get to hear from adolescents directly.
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