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We are ‘sitting on a young people’s health time bomb’

Health inequalities compound in marginalised young people making health outcomes much worse

Louise Prime

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

We are “sitting on a young people’s health time bomb” with high and increasing numbers of children living in poverty, child health experts have warned. They said health services need to be better geared towards catering to this vulnerable group, and have called for binding national targets to reduce child poverty and for child health to be central to all policy decisions.

The Association for Young People’s Health (AYHP) has launched Key Data on Young People 2017, which looks at living circumstances, education and employment, health behaviours and lifestyle, sexual health, mental health, physical health and long-term conditions, and use of health care services.

The report’s authors found many positive time trends – for example, rates of drinking, smoking and teenage pregnancy have all continued to fall – but they said the teens and early 20s remain a ‘risky period’ in health terms, for a range of issues that will have lifetime implications. These include: diet, activity and obesity; sexually transmitted infections; the peak age for diagnosis of a number of chronic conditions such as asthma and type 1 diabetes; the peak age for hospitalisation for challenging conditions such as eating disorders and self-harm; the most common age for concerns around child sexual exploitation; and different health behaviours (such as smoking) that still set in before the age of 25.

They reported that half of Year 10 pupils (aged 14 to 15) said they had visited the GP in the previous three months, and a third of young people aged 15 to 19 had attended accident and emergency in the past year. Worryingly, they noted a particular shortage of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) provision – despite at least 10% of young people having mental health problems, only 24 in 1000 will be referred to CAMHS. The AYPH said there is a need to invest in age-appropriate health promotion and youth-friendly health services in order to improve young people’s health outcomes.

AYPH also revealed the serious impact of health inequalities. It found that without equal access to resources and support, certain groups of young people are put at a disadvantage and have poorer health outcomes. A quarter of young people aged 11 to 19 live in households with the lowest incomes. Young people living in the most deprived areas are more likely to be killed or seriously injured on roads, more likely to be obese, and are more likely to have worse physical, mental and sexual health outcomes. Marginalised groups of young people may have poorer health outcomes than their peers, including looked-after children, young carers, those from ethnic minorities, those with learning disabilities, young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and those who have experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences. Also, it said, health inequalities can compound amongst these groups of young people, making their health outcomes significantly worse – so early identification and prevention are key.

Professor Russell Viner, officer for health promotion at Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, warned: “These latest figures from AYPH provide further grim, yet wholly familiar, reading for anyone working in the field of children and young people’s health. So often this age group is forgotten and the report importantly highlights the many areas where our health services need to be better geared towards catering to this vulnerable group, but what is also clear is that poverty magnifies and hugely impacts upon child health and wellbeing.

“In our landmark State of Child Health report we found that of the 25 key markers of child health, 24 were adversely affected by poverty. With one in four children living in poverty today and that number set to rise, we are indeed sitting on a young people’s health time bomb. To protect the most vulnerable in society, a step in the right direction would be to restore binding national targets to reduce child poverty and for government to adopt a ‘child health in all policies’ approach to decision making across the board.”

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