Over the past few years, we’ve had several projects related to teen health in some way or another.  These have varied from studies of marijuana use to teen sexual health to smoking to mental health, among others. I thought it might be interesting to summarize some of the biggest health concerns that teens in Colorado face today.

Photo by Lindsay Henwood on Unsplash

Top Health Concern: Obesity

While Colorado generally ranks low on national rankings of obesity, it is an issue that is increasing in almost every state. According to a 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment, almost a quarter of Colorado youth are overweight or obese. Two possible causes are that only 1 out of 5 children in Colorado are getting the recommended 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and less than half of Colorado kids get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

Top Health Concern: Mental Health and Suicide

Mental health issues are a growing concern for teens. According to Healthy Kids Colorado 2017, almost a third of Colorado teens felt sad for two or more weeks in a row in the past 12 months. Teen girls were especially likely to report feeling sad. Seven percent of Colorado teens had attempted suicide in the past 12 months, and again teen girls were more likely to have attempted it than teen boys. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for teens in Colorado.

The 2017 Denver Health Youth Needs Assessment provides a glimpse into some of the factors driving youth struggles with mental health issues. Specifically, they note that pressure and expectations to perform well in both school and life were leading contributors to mental health challenges. Young people reported feeling an intense amount of stress in their lives. More than 10% of survey responses identified stress as a key issue affecting youth health. Young people were also concerned about inadequate awareness of and access to mental health services and talked about stigma interfering with help-seeking behavior.

Moreover, the Community of Hope: Mental Health Community Assessment (2016) identified the following key themes as ways to address mental health issues: Improve timeliness and ease of access to services. Reduce stigma. Increase early detection and health promotion. Reduce inappropriate incarceration. Increase overall availability and range of services.

Top Health Concern: Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is often linked to mental health issues. In the Denver Health Youth Needs Assessment, Denver youth reported that teens may often use alcohol and/or marijuana to cope with mental health, depression, or stress. More than a quarter of Colorado teens reported consuming alcohol in the past 30 days, especially teen girls. Binge drinking was higher among Colorado teens than nationally (16% vs. 13.5%). Almost a fifth of Colorado teens reported using marijuana in the past 30 days.

E-cigarette use in Colorado teens is much higher than the national rate (27% vs. 13%). More than 12% of Colorado teens had used prescription pain medication without a prescription. While use of prescription pain medication was less than that of other substances, the rate of drug overdose death in Colorado has doubled since 1999, and much of this increase is due to opioid use.

Substance abuse issues are especially common in south central Colorado and among young people (18 to 25). Substance abuse in teens can be difficult to treat. Parents often feel helpless to support their children because they do not know which prevention programs are available locally. Communities need prevention efforts that engage the whole family and change the way that community members view substance use.

Top Health Concern: Bullying

Much like substance use, bullying also has ties to mental health in youth. Almost 15% of Colorado teens had been electronically bullied in the past 12 months. American Indian youth report the highest rates of electronic bullying (21.8 %), followed by Pacific Islander youth (19.5 %). Bullying is much more common for teen girls, whereas fighting is more common for teen boys.

Teen Health Summary

Many of the health concerns that teens in Colorado, and really across the US, face today reflect the fact that teens are in a phase of life where they are still learning how to navigate new emotions, peer pressures, and other stressors. Making sure that teens have space and skills to deal with these challenges, in addition to trusted adults in their lives, will be critical for addressing many of these health concerns. Finally, it is important to note that some teens are disproportionately more likely to face challenges and experience health concerns, due to other factors (e.g., homelessness, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity, etc.).