Adolescents as a Vulnerable Population
Adolescents are in a period of life that is unavoidable and runs risk of shaping their futures in a negative way. While there are a plethora of experiences adolescents encounter during this period of time, one of the most common milestones is the high school experience. According to the Education Data Organization on school enrollment statistics, as of 2018 there were 15.8 million students enrolled in secondary/high school, with the rate of enrollment trending up. While that does not include every teenager in the nation, almost 16 million is a significantly notable number of teenagers in schools. Focusing on this population of adolescents that are enrolled in a school, attention can be brought to mental vulnerability of this age group. Teenagers are a population of people that are very unique from their preceding and succeeding age groups. They have vast differences from the children they are growing up from being and the adults they are growing into. Their minds are developing and new life experiences can influence them strongly. They are at high risk of mental issues if not properly guided, which is why they can be considered a vulnerable population.
It is important to first understand the concept of a vulnerable population. In the article “Defining and Measuring Vulnerability in Young People,” the authors state that the literal definition of vulnerability means the state or condition of being weak or poorly defended. Basically, the people that fall into these categories of vulnerable populations are susceptible to adversity. There is a high chance that a problem will arise among these people as opposed to among the people that are not included in a vulnerable population. Holly R. Farley in her assessment of adolescent mental health identifies that the most commonly considered vulnerable populations are ethnic minorities, low SES, the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities, all circumstances out of the individuals control. In the case of adolescents, the population they are grouped with is definitely not a choice considering no one can decide what age they would like to be. A person will inevitably go through their teenage years whether they want to or not.
One of the vulnerabilities teenagers as a population face is to mental health illnesses. According to Farley’s assessment of mental health, a big reason adolescents are a vulnerable population is because they are in a prime developmental stage. Most teenagers experience the feeling of being awkwardly stuck in the middle of childhood and adulthood. They are becoming too old to be treated like a child but are not yet old enough to be treated like an adult. This is their transition stage from one level of maturity to the next and it is accompanied by a lot of pressure. The teenagers have gained more responsibilities than they previously had both in school and at home. On top of that the intensity of school has increased and suddenly they have to learn organization and time management. There is no longer someone holding their hand and guiding them the way they were used to.
Another risk factor to mental health during this developmental stage is the social pressures. In the article about defining and measuring vulnerability the authors Shah, Dheeraj, et al. allude specifically to the vulnerability of young people as being found among those more exposed to risks than their surrounding peers. Some teenagers may find their place quicker or already have an established friend group that they have to rely on in any social situations that may arise. But the risk is higher for the teenagers that have to try to establish themselves and those friendships, whether it be they just never really had close friends or they are at a school that none of their friends attend. These adolescents can be pressured into doing things that they do not actually want to do as an attempt to fit in and have friends. They are easily shaped by the environment around them as they try to conform to what they think they are supposed to be. This also is tied with the next risk factor because of their potential choices of bad behavior to fit in.
Teenagers are vulnerable not only to their environment, but also to themselves. While the decisions they make can be attributed to the social pressures they experience, at the end of the day they do have free will and choose to make decisions. Some of the influencing factors that Farley lists are the want to fit in and exploration of sexual identity. Their longing to fit in is probably the biggest inducer of self-destruction. They could go to the extreme and get involved with substances like drugs and alcohol or could engage in minor delinquencies like cracking jokes in class at the expense of their reputation and success. While trying to explore their sexuality they could become involved in situations they are not quite ready for in order to combat feeling like an outsider when “everyone else is doing it.” They could also face challenges of coming to terms with a sexual preference that they may not feel is accepted but that they ultimately do not have a choice to decide. This could lead them to doing things to avoid this feelings or having to deal with rejection if they do not fit a societal norm (although in this age all sexualities are more of a norm). Without guidance, these teenagers can dig themselves in holes too deep to get out of and become sent on the wrong path.
A prominent mental health illnesses the adolescents are vulnerable to is depression. Farley provides statistics that of the 12% of the US population that is made up of adolescents, 30% are reporting symptoms of depression each year. A striking statistic is that suicide is the second leading cause of death between ages 10-24, a range that starts just short of adolescence and goes just a few years past. These high rates of illness can be due to the fact that these teenage years are a time of physical and emotional changes, as previously discussed. Another large mental health issue is anxiety, which could be generalized or attributed to social interactions. The illness could inhibit the ability to make friends or to get involved, which are important factors to the healthy development of adolescents. The vulnerability of teenagers can lead to the development of these mental illnesses if they are not giving the resources and opportunities to avoid the negative outcomes of adolescence.
Bustamante, Jaleesa. K-12 Enrollment Statistics : Totals by Grade Level + More. 6 Sept. 2019, educationdata.org/k12-enrollment-statistics.
Farley, Holly R. “Assessing Mental Health in Vulnerable Adolescents.” Nursing, vol. 50, no. 10, 2020, pp. 48–53., doi:10.1097/01.nurse.0000697168.39814.93.
Shah, Dheeraj, et al. “Defining and Measuring Vulnerability in Young People.” Indian Journal of Community Medicine, vol. 40, no. 3, 2015, p. 193., doi:10.4103/0970-0218.158868.