Benton, KY – State and national surveys have measured teen risk behavior, but few look at the attitudes behind those behaviors. Conventional wisdom says teenagers are impulsive and take risks because they're not mature enough to realize the consequences. But an article in the July issue of Pediatrics suggests some teenagers engage in risky behavior like unsafe sex and substance abuse because they don't think they have a future. Angela Hatton has this story about what a fatalistic attitude means for Kentucky teen health.
Sixteen-year-old Kristen Buchanan and eighteen-year-old Travis Peck both go to Marshall County High School. She's a rising junior and he's a rising senior. When asked about high school, Buchanan gives a typical answer.
"It's school. I mean it's not like anyone's crazy about it. I mean, it's fine. . ."
Neither Buchanan nor Peck are what health officials term "at risk" students. They belong to a group of good friends. Buchanan participates in marching band and Peck is interested in film. They don't do drugs or drink. And they think about what their future is going to be like, even if they're not sure where their careers will take them.
"But I do think that I'll be doing what I want to do in twenty years, as long as I'm not broke down poor."
There are some teenagers who don't feel as confident as Peck about their futures. University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Pediatrics Iris Borowsky has co-authored a long-term study that asked American teenagers a series of questions. Most importantly among them the researchers wondered whether teens thought they'd make it to age 35.
"Thankfully, most teenagers did not have this pessimistic view about their future. Eighty-five percent of adolescents did not believe that their risk of early death was high. But fifteen percent did, so that's one of seven youth in this country who look into the future and do not see a long road ahead of them."
The study shows a direct correlation between these fatalistic views and what Borowsky terms "negative health outcomes." The fifteen percent in the study are more likely to contract HIV-AIDS and they're more likely to attempt suicide. The number goes up to one in four when you look at youth from lower socio-economic backgrounds. High-schooler Kristen Buchanan says her school doesn't directly address issues like depression or drugs very often.
"Every once in a while they'll have like a little assembly and they'll come talk to us. But usually it's like these, they have little informational posters up around school about 'you have a help line, come talk to us, you have a problem.'"
"Do you think people pay attention to those?"
"Not really. I mean, you seem them, but when you actually need them, I don't think it really comes to mind."
Who do teenagers turn to if they have a problem?
"Probably their friends."
Buchanan and senior Travis Peck have had friends come to them for support, sometimes for small problems and on occasion for larger issues. Their school has a counselor for each grade, but Peck says few students go there for personal problems. Teenagers like Buchanan and Peck have teachers they like and could talk to as well as their friends.
"But some people they just, they don't talk to a bunch of people. They kind of keep to theirselves and I don't think they have a lot of outlets."
Elaine Hogencamp is freshman counselor at Marshall County High. Hogencamp tries to help teens as they transition from middle to high school. She gives advice on classes, tells students about college opportunities, and yes, also talks to them about personal problems like fights at home and relationship issues. Hogencamp says last year school administrators recognized the stigma of going to the counselor's office and did some restructuring.
"All the counselors have moved out in the high school to try to be able contact the students more often. So the students have that freedom to come to their office and not feel like they have to go to the main office."
But students don't always feel brave enough to make the first move themselves. Teen feelings of loneliness and isolation are a serious issue, leading to decisions as final as suicide. In Kentucky, suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers between 15 and 19. Data from a youth risk behavior survey says nearly a third of teens experience long periods of sadness or hopelessness. Dr. Borowsky says her study emphasizes the importance of adults not letting teens slide under the radar.
"As a pediatrician it says to me that I should assess the ability of my patients to see themselves into the future. And so to ask questions like what do you want to do when you get older? Do you want to go to college? What do you think the future holds for you? Even questions like how long do you think you're going to live? Do you think you're going to die early?"
Travis Peck says he wishes some older people were less prejudiced against teenagers and more willing to talk with them like they would their peers.
"Age does matter, but not in the sense where they're younger they don't know as much as you. They say the older you are the wiser you are. That's true but some people think that since someone's a teenager they don't know much at all because they're still learning."
Elaine Hogencamp agrees high school students should be treated with the same respect as adults.
"Because they do have issues that are as serious as adults, so we don't need to treat anything lightly that they say. Take everything seriously."
No so-called "at-risk" teens were interviewed for this report . . . but that's the point. The ones who are most likely to need to talk are the ones least likely to have the chance to do so. In Kentucky, health officials are trying to train more counselors in how to connect with disengaged adolescents. They're also trying to raise awareness about the seriousness of suicide and depression. On the national level, Iris Borowsky and her colleagues continue their work on teen attitudes. She hopes their research will help make teens healthier by making them happier and more optimistic about the future.