Dr. Hatim Omar responds weekly to hundreds of emails from teens and talks to teens all day long at of the University of Kentucky Adolescent Medicine Clinic.
One of only 600 doctors designated as adolescent medicine specialists in the world, Omar is outspoken about the need for reforming how society approaches teens and health.
“The main difference between teens and everyone else is, for the most part, 95 percent of the death rate in teens is caused by something they do: accidents, homicides, suicides, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies, eating disorders,” he said. “So for any clinic that wants to help teens, prevention has to be the focus, not the reaction to something.”
Omar speaks out about mental health on the KET special What Does Every Teen Need?
“Everything is related to mental health. I don’t consider that a separate entity, and that’s what we try to show people, that adolescent health is about a comprehensive approach to these kids,” he says.
Across the state, youth advocates are using positive youth development programs to help teens deal with all kinds of stressors, from pressure to use drugs to pressure to be perfect.
Benita Decker, coordinator of adolescent health at the Kentucky Department of Health, emphasizes the five C’s: confidence, character, connection, competence, and contribution. “Teens need to feel like they’re making a difference in the world,” she says.
In Newport, the Brighton Center helps at-risk adolescents through its free after-school club. Michelle Bullis of the Brighton Center says adults should realize that underneath their outward confidence, teens are nervous and uncertain about their futures.
“There’s lots of layers to teens,” she says. “They’re not just moody, cranky little adults running around.”
The Brighton Center provides a safe place for conversation about all kinds of topics, and they work on team building and career exploration activities like job shadowing. “We encourage our youth and teens to realize that they have dreams and they’re attainable and they can reach those dreams,” Bullis says
Having caring adults at Brighton Center who listen has helped Mariah Jones of Newport stay away from drugs and stay focused on the future. “In general I’ve stayed away from doing all of that because I’ve seen how much it has sucked away my friends’ ambition for things,” she says.
Sometimes ambition leads to its own kind of stress. Abbey Bowe developed an eating disorder after the stress of making good grades became too much. After treatment she found a safe haven at the YMCA’s Youth Leadership Training Institute.
“It’s given me a safe place where I don’t feel any pressure to get ahead or have a number ascribed to me,” she says. “It’s given me a place where all that matters is how nice you are to other people. And the friendships you make.”
For parents, sometimes problems seem to appear out of nowhere.
The Houchens family experienced a deep shock when their college-age daughter Abby became addicted to heroin.
“My family did not know that I was doing any kind of drugs,” Abby says. “They thought I had an eating disorder because I had lost a significant amount of weight.”
Eventually her parents confronted her and the rocky road to recovery began. Abby has not used heroin in a year, and the family has grown through the experience. “I think with our younger daughter we’ve had more frank conversations. There’s things that we can talk about now that maybe we wouldn’t have before,” says Abby’s father, Rob Houchens.
Jean Schumm, president and founder of Operation Parent, urges parents not to be caught off guard. “It’s easy to slip into denial because unless you’ve had a big issue, you really think everything is going well,” she says.
Operation Parent publishes a parent guide that addresses 40 different issues facing teens today and also offers workshops for parents on a host of issues. One of the most popular is a workshop called “social media mania.”
Because of cell phones and the Internet, “kids have access 24/7 to a lot of things we never would have dreamed of having access to when we were growing up,” Schumm says. “It’s a nightmare for parents.”
The Role of the Schools
Lincoln County school officials sought out UK’s Dr. Omar after a young man died accidentally in 2006 in the “choking game,” which is when someone intentionally cuts off oxygen to the brain with the goal of inducing temporary euphoria.
Now the school system does a risk-assessment screening for students in sixth through eighth grades for issues ranging from weight to sex to drugs. If they find a concern, school officials contact the teen’s parents and ask if they would like their teen to be seen by Dr. Omar and his team. Twice a month, Omar and his team come to the school district and meet with students.
“I think since we have started we have not had a completed suicide. That does not mean it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but that’s still a big difference,” says Omar. “Their teen pregnancy rate is down from 92 to 72; their graduation rate is up; the school dropout rate is down. This is just by being there twice a month.”
Harrison County schools also turned to Omar when they experienced three teen suicides in six months. Passport Health Plan is helping fund the prevention program in Harrison County.
“Passport thinks this is a good thing to fund because it’s prevention, it’s working with teens and identifying issues on the front end so that they can get the services that they need,” says Ryan Burt of Passport.
Dr. Omar believes more on-site mental health programs in all parts of the state will make a difference in teens’ lives.
Jenny Lynn Hatter, instructional supervisor in Harrison County schools, agrees. “I think it is something that would change the whole landscape of adolescent health,” she says.
What Does Every Teen Need is a KET production, funded in part by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.