Adolescents in developing countries face numerous health threats

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From smoking to the ravages of war, adolescents in developing countries face numerous threats to their health. Experts discussed these threats—and possible policy responses—at the third annual State of Global Health Symposium, hosted on March 29 by the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Theresa Betancourt, associate professor of global health and population, highlighted the importance of mental health for adolescents, particularly in war-torn areas. According to Betancourt, an estimated 230 million children live in areas affected by armed conflict, and 75% of mental health problems begin before age 24—meaning that the traumatic stress of war can have lingering, lifelong consequences for young people.

Adolescents who experience certain types of toxic stress—“young people who survived rape, [young people] who were involved in injuring or killing other people, or [young people] who experienced the death of a caregiver”—are at a higher risk for mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, said Betancourt.

A person’s recovery largely depends on what happens after the conflict, said Betancourt. Are they accepted back into their community, with the chance to attend school? Or are they stigmatized and denied food and shelter?

Betancourt has tested post-conflict interventions for young people in Sierra Leone, which was ravaged by an 11-year civil war from 1991 to 2002.