ICRW helps launch findings from Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health & Wellbeing

Article Date

11 May 2016

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

This week, ICRW traveled to London for the launch of the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing. The Commission’s findings highlighted how decades of neglect and chronic underinvestment have had serious detrimental effects on the health and wellbeing of adolescents aged 10–24 years. ICRW’s Suzanne Petroni served as the lead for the Youth Engagement of the Commission. Below is a Q&A with Suzanne Petroni unpacking why the commission, and youth engagement around issues related to health and wellbeing, are critical to tackling poverty worldwide.

Why are the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing’s findings so important to global health discussions?

The Commission highlights the fact that adolescence is really a quite critical time of human development. It’s a period of profound physical, psychological and emotional change, and one that’s marked by both vulnerability and opportunity. The decisions made by adolescents and the habits they form can determine their health and wellbeing – not only during this important time period, but also for a lifetime.

Investments in adolescent health and wellbeing are therefore absolutely critical, and I think the global health community is on the cusp of understanding this. Our hope is that this report can spur new support for, and new investments in, adolescent health, particularly as the world is about to see the largest generation of adolescents in human history.

What are some of the barriers the Commission highlighted? What are some of the opportunities that emerged from the research?

Adolescents and young adults face increasing social and gender inequity, as well as social marginalization, which can give rise to a range of risks to health and wellbeing. Many health problems faced by adolescents — unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, HIV, poor nutrition, injuries and violence, for example — are preventable, but without access to appropriate and youth friendly information and services, and without broader societal changes that promote the rights and wellbeing of adolescents, we will not be able to overcome these challenges.

On the other hand, there are indeed tremendous opportunities to shift the future for adolescents. The Commission found that expanding access to quality secondary education is one of the smartest investments we can make, with far-reaching health, economic, social and security benefits, particularly for girls. We know that those who are more educated live longer, healthier lives. Further, providing access to health care, including the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, is critical to securing adolescents’ health and wellbeing and educational attainment, as well as the economic security of adolescents and their families. Finally, engaging youth positively in the decisions that affect their health and wellbeing, as well as that of their peers, can be tremendously helpful.

As the lead for the Youth Engagement section of the commission, why do you think engaging youth is critical to meeting the needs of adolescents around the world?

From research on brain development, we know that adolescents are biologically, emotionally and developmentally primed to engage beyond their families. And we know that without opportunities for positive engagement, or in places where antisocial forms of engagement are supported, youth can be drawn into violence, substance abuse or extremism, or can be at greater risk of mental disorders. Alternatively, however, this increased engagement has the potential to be tremendously positive — adolescents and youth can bring the energy, enthusiasm and passion needed to inspire and shape movements for social change. We must therefore create the opportunities and structures to positively and meaningfully engage with adolescents across many aspects of their lives.

This message was reinforced by the 500 young health advocates from 89 countries we surveyed as part of the Commission’s work. The single most important message these young leaders wanted us to convey to the global community was that adolescents and youth should be supported and empowered to contribute to designing, implementing and assessing policies, programs and systems that affect their health and wellbeing. And we hope our report did that.

What are some of the biggest challenges to engaging youth in conversations around health and wellbeing?

Successfully engaging youth requires strengthening the capacities of youth to work in partnership with adults and vice versa. This requires promoting not only active youth participation (“training young people to speak”), but also the supportive responses of adults (“training adults to listen”).  More egalitarian relationships between youth and adults are also essential. We have to overcome negative attitudes by adults about youth, and young people’s lack of confidence in engagement processes.  Other barriers to overcome include cultural or social subordination of youth to adults, of girls to boys, and the societal stigmatization of marginalized youth, such as HIV positive youth, married adolescents, youth with disabilities, LGBT youth and others. 

Meaningful engagement is an essential part of adolescent health and development, and it requires strong partnership with adults, training and mentorship, and the creation of structures and processes that allow and encourage youth engagement in making the decisions that shape their lives, as well as those of their peers.

How do you hope the Commission’s recommendations will be used around the world?

The Commission report is rich with data about the health challenges specific to adolescents in a wide range of countries. We anticipate governments and advocates using this information to inform policies and programs at the local and national levels. And because addressing adolescent health requires multi-sectoral approaches, policies and programs should come from and be applied not only to the health sector, but also to the education, justice, transportation and other sectors.

At the same time, we are very hopeful that governments, donors, international organizations and others will heed the call by the Commission to prioritize adolescent health in as a distinct area, because, as we wrote in the report, investing in adolescent health and wellbeing could transform global health for generations to come.