PHILADELPHIA (Jan. 13) — Lime green is Laura Offutt’s favorite color. The physician who runs Real Talk with Dr Offutt, the non-judgmental, ad-free website focused on helping teenagers stay healthy, convinced owners of a few buildings on this historic skyline to light them up this week and show teens that although some adults may write off teen health issues as being imaginary, plenty of adults, especially in this state, do listen to kids and honor—even celebrate—the importance of teen-specific health issues.
Her website answers questions from anonymous students in a general way on topics that range from sexual health and development to self-esteem. Over the summer, she brings in teenagers to advise her on ways she might improve the site to make it more of a resource for teens and speak directly to and with them.
One of her 2015 advisors, whose father was familiar with local government, helped to brainstorm the idea of underscoring the significance of an entire week devoted to teenage health issues and suggested obtaining a state proclamation, which was achieved by bringing in the Pennsylvania Department of Health and other agencies. The idea blossomed, and at the start of this year’s week of learning and fun activities, seven students helped read Gov Tom Wolf’s proclamation from the Capitol rotunda.
“Students were nominated by schools or other organizations to be honored at the event,” Dr Offutt said. “Each selected student got to read one of the ‘Whereas’ clauses. It was just a small part, but being part of something so big was really significant for them. It gave them a voice in Teen Health Week in Harrisburg.”
Hanah, a junior at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, was in Harrisburg for the kickoff. “The most important thing about this week was really seeing that more people are becoming aware that our issues aren’t as little as the adults make it seem,” she said. “Our mental health and physical health are very important. Adults usually think our issues are just teenage issues—drama—but it’s really not; it’s more serious than that. It’s our lives; it’s not just a phase, because it leads into adulthood eventually.”
The basic idea of “Teen Health Week” is that it’s a set of guidelines that schools or community organizations can start with and develop their own learning programs. Each day has a “theme,” like mental health on Wednesday and substance use and abuse on Friday, and Dr Offutt has put together what she calls a tookit to give schools ideas how to build lessons, activities, or a curriculum around these daily themes. “There are way too many examples to share, things that I’ve heard about how different schools and organizations have been participating, but I’ll just say a few, just to give you the flavor,” she said.
- Philadelphia students developed activities for Violence Prevention Day (Tuesday) that Dr Offutt included in the toolkit.
- Different school districts had different speakers come in to address each of the issues on the five days of the week.
- A number of schools designed lime green T-shirts with different health messages, like a spirit T-shirt.
- Colleges and universities partnered with high schools to facilitate educational activities around the week.
The state’s physician general, Dr Rachel Levine, and deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention, Dr Loren Robinson, were also a part of the proclamation ceremony. Those two were among the adults at what was a culmination party for the week at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia here this afternoon.
Dr Robinson said there’s been some interest and press coverage, but she’d really like to see teens everywhere get involved in health issues throughout the year. “Right now, Teen Health Week is only in Pennsylvania,” she said. “But since the American Medical Association has also declared this to be Teen Health Week, there are people working to make sure the whole country knows about it. I’d like to hear ideas from you about how we can make this bigger—maybe next year, not across the whole country, but maybe just the states touching Pennsylvania.”
Dr Michael DellaVecchia, past president of the Philadelphia County Medical Society, also spoke at Mütter. He was an alternate delegate to the AMA meeting in November, where he was successful in getting the association to pass a unanimous resolution for Teen Health Week.
“We realized at the inception that this was a very good idea,” he said. “Investing in teen health pays off, even in terms of adult health. We had less than a month to get that resolution together, and everybody contributed; everybody worked hard.
“The reason it was successful is that you, the participants, made it successful,” he told about 40 teenagers gathered for the final party. “We’ll do it not only with the states that touch Pennsylvania, but we will do it nationally. We look for it to grow. Keep on participating—that’s what makes it a success.”
Like Dr Robinson, I don’t know of any other states doing something this big, and a lot of cooperation is needed to make it work, especially since schools ought to be a necessary ingredient in the Teen Health Week formula. Kids spend much of their lives in school, and that’s where a lot of people who care about their health can be found.
But state departments of education can abruptly shut down anything that looks like a curriculum. A key exception should be student health and safety, but even that and a unanimous resolution from the AMA haven’t been enough to inspire those departments to engage. Inter-agency cooperation is a rare thing, indeed, but it has certainly begun in the Keystone State.
“It seems like more and more organizations are unable to work together to accomplish things,” Dr Offutt said. “But one of the things that I think is truly wonderful about Pennsylvania Teen Health Week is that, in fact, this is really something that helps teens and adults, medical and non-medical organizations, and the private, public, nonprofit, and government sectors all work together to be able to make a much bigger positive impact on our communities than any one of us could do by ourselves. I want you to be inspired by this and take it forward in your lives.”