Adolescent health risks called alarmingly high

April 23, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Long regarded as the most vibrant and indestructible of age groups, the U.S. adolescent generation is actually quite vulnerable to death and debilitating risk, and little is being done about it, a congressional study reports.

"One-fourth of our kids are at very high risk and half of them [at] higher-than-normal risk," said David Hamburg, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, which assisted Congress' Office of Technology Assessment in preparing a ground-breaking report on the well-being of people ages 10 through 18.

The OTA released the report yesterday at a news conference.

Among other things, it showed that youngsters most in need of help have little access to the services that could make a difference in their lives.

More than 4 of 5 adolescent deaths are linked to accidents, homicides and suicides, said OTA Director Jack Gibbons, and the vast percentage are preventable.

Perhaps even more damaging, both to the youngsters and to society as a whole, the report said, is the large number of adolescents who engage in self-destructive behavior that limits their futures, such as teen-age pregnancies, alcohol and substance abuse, careless driving, dropping out of school and delinquency.

Although illicit drug use has declined in recent years, the reportsaid, the consequences among teen-agers remain severe and often lead to delinquency and dropping out of school.

"This is very high-risk behavior," Mr. Hamburg said. "We're not talking just about growing pains or sowing wild oats, but about behavior that can lead to serious, long-term consequences."

Beyond that, the study showed that millions of the 31 million youngsters in this age group are at risk through no fault of their own. They are victims of poverty, broken families, disease and physical impairment, mental stress and homelessness.

"Diagnosable mental disorders, ranging from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia, are experienced by 18 to 22 percent of adolescents," it said.

Suicide as a major killer of teen-agers is increasing, the report added. "In 1988, the suicide rate among 15- to 19-year-olds was 10.3 per 100,000 population -- triple the rate in the mid-1950s."

Adolescents whose family incomes were less than $10,000 "were more than twice as likely as those whose family incomes were $35,000 or above to have a chronic [health] condition."

The main barriers to adequate services, the report said, are low income, lack of health insurance, limits on insurance coverage for those who have it and geographical lack of access to the services.

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