Adolescence is a critical period of development that brings with it unique health challenges, which has prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to publish a policy statement addressing those issues.

“The importance of addressing the physical and mental health of adolescents has become more evident, with investigators in recent studies pointing to the fact that unmet health needs during adolescence and in the transition to adulthood predict not only poor health outcomes as adults but also lower quality of life in adulthood,” wrote lead authors Elizabeth M. Alderman, MD, and Cora Collette Breuner, MD, MPH, of the AAP’s Committee on Adolescence.

Teen sitting on floor in hallway at school Lisa Quarfoth/Thinkstock

The first key health risk the authors highlighted was risky and risk-taking behaviors, pointing out that nearly three-quarters of adolescent deaths result from vehicle crashes, injuries from firearms, alcohol and illicit substances, homicide, or suicide. They also cited increased concern about the use of e-cigarettes among adolescents.

Recommendations exist on screening for and counseling on high-risk behaviors, but evidence showing that relatively few adolescents actually receive any kind of preventive counseling or discuss these health risks with pediatricians or primary care physicians suggests that improvement is needed.

“New screening codes for depression, substance use, and alcohol and tobacco use as well as brief intervention services may provide opportunities to receive payment for the services pediatricians are providing to adolescents,” wrote Dr. Alderman of the division of adolescent medicine in the department of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, New York, and Dr. Breuner of the division of adolescent medicine at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Thanks to technological advances in pediatric medical care, more adolescents are being identified with chronic medical conditions and developmental challenges. One survey suggested that as many as 31% of adolescents have one moderate to severe chronic health condition, such as asthma, cardiac disease, HIV, and developmental disabilities. Many, however, have unmet health needs that could affect their physical growth and development during adolescence.

The paper also raised the importance of providing culturally competent health care approaches and support for minority youth, with evidence suggesting this group of adolescents is at risk of depression because of the isolation and discrimination they experience.

Similarly, the statement acknowledged the growing diversity of adolescent populations – for example, adolescents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender – and the importance of delivering appropriate care to those populations.

“Sexual orientation and behaviors should be assessed by the pediatrician without making assumptions,” the authors wrote. “Adolescents should be allowed to apply and explain the labels they choose to use for sexuality and gender using open-ended questions.”

The authors drew attention to the greater mental health risks of adolescents, pointing out that about one in five adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder and one-quarter of adults with mood disorders had their first major depressive episode during adolescence. They also cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of high school students, which showed that adolescents with a parent serving in the military are at increased risk of suicidal ideation.

In addition, Dr. Alderman and Dr. Breuner said, mental health problems experienced by adolescents often are comorbid with eating disorders. Formerly obese adolescents, male teenagers, and young people from lower socioeconomic groups are increasingly developing anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and other disordered eating.

The paper called for more financial, educational, and training support for pediatricians and other health care professionals to enable them to better meet the health and developmental needs of adolescents.

Dr. Alderman and Dr. Breuner declared having no conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Alderman EM and Breuner CC. Pediatrics. 2019 Nov 18. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-3150 .