LIMA — As childhood obesity rates have grown in recent years, there has been concern that this will be the first generation to live less healthy and die at an earlier age than their parents.
It was with this concern in mind that organizers of the 2017 Allen County Health Risk and Community Needs Assessment included young people as a focal point in its research, examining both the physical health and mental health of county residents age 18 and younger.
According to the assessment, released Friday, 32 percent of young people in grades six to 12 are considered overweight or obese. However, 88 percent of that same group would eat between one and four servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and 50 percent of county youth were physically active for at least 60 minutes five days or more per week, in line with the national average of 49 percent.
Another positive trend, according to researchers, is that the rate of current smokers among young people in Allen County has dropped, down from 16 percent in 2009 to 6 percent. However, Michael Schoenhofer, executive director of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board for Allen, Auglaize and Hardin Counties, pointed to statistics showing significantly higher participation among smokers compared to nonsmoking youth in having at least one alcoholic drink the past 30 days (83 percent to 17 percent), using marijuana in the past 30 days (74 percent to 8 percent), engagement in sexual intercourse (68 percent to 23 percent) and misusing prescription drugs (39 percent to 3 percent).
“Everyone talks about what the ‘gateway’ drug is, like marijuana,” he said. “Look at cigarettes.”
Many young people have often dealt with the trauma of losing a friend to suicide, or have considered suicide themselves. In Allen County, 31 percent of youth felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row, 18 percent seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 8 percent had attempted suicide in the past year. All of those are within 1 percent of the national average.
“This really confirms the fact that we need to reach out to our kids,” Schoenhofer said. “The fact that kids who are thinking about suicide would talk to a close friend (52 percent) or a parent (36 percent) is important, and those are two groups we need to reach out to.”
Schoenhofer emphasized parental involvement as being a key factor in helping youth make good mental health choices.
“The most telling thing in this is that youth who didn’t use drugs said that the reason they did not use them is because it would upset their parents” (73 percent), he said. “We have parents who have said they talk to their kids about drugs and suicide, and that is the most powerful thing we can do.”