Adolescence is the phase of life between childhood and adulthood, from ages 10 to 19. It is a unique stage of human development and an important time for laying the foundations of good health. Adolescents experience rapid physical, cognitive and psychosocial growth. This affects how they feel, think, make decisions, and interact with the world around them.
Despite being thought of as a healthy stage of life, there is significant death, illness and injury in the adolescent years. Much of this is preventable or treatable. During this phase, adolescents establish patterns of behaviour – for instance, related to diet, physical activity, substance use, and sexual activity – that can protect their health and the health of others around them, or put their health at risk now and in the future.
To grow and develop in good health, adolescents need information, including age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education; opportunities to develop life skills; health services that are acceptable, equitable, appropriate and effective; and safe and supportive environments. They also need opportunities to meaningfully participate in the design and delivery of interventions to improve and maintain their health. Expanding such opportunities is key to responding to adolescents specific needs and rights.
Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death and disability among adolescents. Many of those who died were “vulnerable road users”, including pedestrians, cyclists or users of motorized two-wheelers. In many countries, road safety laws need to be made more comprehensive, and enforcement of such laws needs to be strengthened. Furthermore, young drivers need advice on driving safely, while laws that prohibit driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs need to be strictly enforced among all age groups. Blood alcohol levels should be set lower for young drivers than for adults. Graduated licenses for novice drivers with zero-tolerance for drink-driving are recommended.
Drowning is also among the top 10 causes of death among adolescents – nearly 50 000 adolescents, over two thirds of them boys, are estimated to have drowned. Teaching children and adolescents to swim is an essential intervention to prevent these deaths.
Depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents. Violence, poverty, humiliation and feeling devalued can increase the risk of developing mental health problems.
Building life skills in children and adolescents and providing them with psychosocial support in schools and other community settings can help promote good mental health. Programmes to help strengthen the ties between adolescents and their families are also important. If problems arise, they should be detected and managed by competent and caring health workers.
Interpersonal violence is the third leading cause of death in adolescents, globally, though its prominence varies substantially by world region. It causes nearly a third of all adolescent male deaths in low- and middle-income countries of the WHO Region of the Americas. Globally, nearly one in three adolescent girls aged 15 – 19 years (84 million) has been a victim of emotional, physical and/or sexual violence.
Promoting nurturing relationships between parents and children early in life, providing training in life skills, and reducing access to alcohol and firearms can help to prevent injuries and deaths due to violence. Effective and empathetic care for adolescent survivors of violence including ongoing support can help with the physical and psychological consequences.
Drug use among 15–19 year olds is also an important global concern. Drug control may focus on reducing drug demand, drug supply, or both, and successful programmes usually include structural, community, and individual-level interventions.