The Public Health of Youth: An underestimated possibility to improve social engagement, political equality, and democracy

Young people make up a large part of the world's population and constitute a needed, driving force in development of society. Ensuring that all young people can enjoy the highest standard of attainable health is an important way of enabling equal opportunities for social participation and engagement. Thus, the health of young people is not only a human right that must be incorporated, moreover, it is fundamentally important from a democratic point of view.

By: Louise Burenby

In recent years, massive societal movements have taken place. We’ve seen a global outcry of protests against the climate crisis, lack of democracy, racial injustice and inequality worldwide. Youth have been at the front and center of these movements, and we have, once again, proven our capacity to organize for societal change.

Today, around 1,8 billion individuals of the global population are between 15 and 29 years old, and young people have an important role to play in societal development. Fortunately, youth participation in decision making has received increased attention over the last decade. For instance, the United Nations invites youth delegates to their commissions, where they implement youth resolutions and provide various youth programs. In this effort, there has been an increased focus on applying an intersectional perspective, in which “leave no one behind” has been a common phrase. This inclusive perspective is urgent, as there are grave inequities in terms of power distribution in society, and marginalized groups of young people are underrepresented in societal development processes. The inequality among youth is a global issue, occurring at many levels in society. For example, youth in segregated areas of low socioeconomic standing in Sweden are less active in civil society, have lower chances of obtaining good health and good marks, and are more likely to fall into criminality and drug addiction.

Living in a strong and well-functioning democracy means that all people should have the same possibilities of participation and engagement in the social sphere. To incorporate and sustain a democratic society, we need a multi-layered understanding of the circumstances that determines whether, and for whom, this is possible. The focus of this article will be on one of the structural issues contributing to the inequalities regarding societal engagement among youth, namely health. Youth possibility to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health is not only a human rights issue, but a matter of democracy that has to be a higher priority worldwide.

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The unique concerns of being young

Young people often lack the experience, legitimacy, networks, education and/or the resources (social as well as economic) needed to access help and support when facing health issues. At the same time, adolescence is a difficult time when new health issues often arise. It is a crucial time for establishing good habits linked to health and well-being.

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in anxiety, stress and mental illness among young people, and today, depression is the leading cause of illness among adolescents globally. This is a problem of serious concern, further reflected in the frequency of self-harm among youth, and the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death among people between the ages 15 and 19 worldwide.

A set of different factors determine mental health outcomes for young people. These include traumatic experiences in early life, insecurities, media influences, exploration of sexual identity, and/or lack of social belonging. Strengthening individuals’ capabilities to tackle these difficulties, and supporting individuals to make healthy and good decisions is key in solving these problems. Young people need practice in understanding emotions and how to deal with them, as well as a strong self-esteem that gives them courage to resist peer pressure and the ability to draw boundaries in situations involving drugs, unsafe sex and other risks.

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In addition to strengthening individuals, society has to provide structural support to prevent health problems, and promote good health and wellbeing among youth. Comprehensive strategies that include free and easily accessed healthcare services, high quality education and specialized health programs that address youth through various channels are examples of such interventions. Several initiatives are taken on a global scale, but national and local interventions are crucial.

How to implement an intersectional youth perspective in public health?

It goes without saying that young people are not a homogenous group, but rather consist of individuals with needs that require an intersectional understanding. Without managing to help and support youths with different backgrounds and needs, just and equitable societal participation will not be possible. Today, marginalized youth are at higher risk of being deprived of their rights and access to healthcare services worldwide. This is not only connected to socioeconomic reasons, but also due to inadequacy in the healthcare sector, as well as discrimination of different groups. LGBTQ+ people are often affected by these challenges, and the situation not only affects their health and wellbeing, but also their chances of participating within and engaging to develop society. This is an example of how healthcare is interconnected with questions of equal participation, democracy and justice.

What can we do about it?

In practice, youth-adapted healthcare services must include an increased agency and empowerment of youth. As youth, we know our needs best, so without our participation, our indispensable perspectives will be left out.

These are some examples of how youth-participation can be implemented on national as well as international levels:

  1. Providing free and easily accessible healthcare services, specifically aimed at young people. 
  2. Having youth representatives in political institutions and inviting youth to take part in the planning and organization of healthcare. 
  3. Facilitate a continuous dialogue with youth regarding healthcare and health issues, and allowing youth to evaluate health services.
  4. Ensuring that youth from all parts of society, with a wide range of experiences, get involved. 
  5. Investing in more research and education within the healthcare sector  focusing on youth, to improve knowledge among healthcare professionals. 

Louise Burenby is a master student at the Public Health Programme at Lund University, with a background in Human Rights. 2020-2021, she is the Swedish Youth Representative to the United Nations General Assembly.

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