Adolescent Mental Health: A Whole Person Approach


Adolescents (ages 10-19) are often overlooked or mis-categorized somewhere in between adults and pediatrics in medicine. Actually, specific attention is needed for this unique developmental period. This time period is perhaps the most influential time to help individuals establish healthy habits which could prevent disease and promote health for the rest of their lives. It is important for your health care provider to understand this.

At the center of healthy habit formation is diet and lifestyle, which incidentally are very impactful for many of the ailments common among adolescent youth. Hormone balancing, dermatologic health, and managing mood all are impacted by eating a healthy whole foods diet. Unfortunately, junk food, sugar, and caffeinated beverages are all common consumptions in our society, which begin as early as the teenage years. Negative eating habits form during this age which impact the major illnesses which plague our society, cardiac health, high cholesterol, and diabetes to name a few. Minimizing processed foods and identifying food intolerances can have many positive impacts on health.

It may be difficult to establish healthy habits in the diet and lifestyle when negative results may not be experienced immediately. We all have heard people comment about how they "used" to eat junk food when they were younger with seemingly no effect on their health or weight. People often think that suddenly some time in their twenties or thirties that metabolism slows and their body suddenly resists the unhealthy lifestyle. The liver is an organ which must work to detoxify the body, metabolize waste, and play many key roles in numerous biochemical pathways.

Like an over-worked employee, there is often only so much that can be done during a certain time period. Once the liver begins to lose efficiency, we may begin to feel the effects as a slower metabolism, weight gain, feelings of fatigue, etc. The toxins consumed with a poor diet are suddenly seem more biophysical as the liver loses ability to clear them in a timely manner.  However, this does not mean that the body was not reacting negatively to the poor diet, it merely means that a limit has been reached.

Healthy choices in diet and lifestyle need to be a consideration sooner than later to have a more positive effect on the body and organ systems. If healthy habits began sooner than later in the lives of our youth, the health advantages would impact our society in numerous ways. From physical to psychological, positive influences can plant the seeds of social change in health.

Identity formation is a huge psychological stage during the teen years. Adolescents is a time when understanding yourself in relation to the rest of the world takes place. The identity shaping and exploring that occurs during this time and this can sometimes seem really confusing. The world around adolescent youth strongly influences their mental, emotional, and behavioral well-being.

Positive or negative, peer groups, family, school, neighborhood, and environmental factors have a huge effect on individuals during this time. It has been repeatedly observed that youth who were exposed to violence, sex, drug use, and drinking in the media were more likely to implement this behavior in their own lives.

Youth often model behavior, reactions, coping mechanisms to stress, and regulate emotions from how the influential adults in their life are demonstrating this. The idea of "do as I say, not as I do" is a problem for youth because the action and way of being is of utmost consideration.

There is growing evidence that well-planed and well-executed youth programs which focus on relationship support, positive social experiences, resources for coping with stress, and resources for dealing with emotions are very beneficial and have positive outcomes.   

Naturopathic Equine Therapy is a program I have developed as a resource for youth development. Through interactions with the horse, a youth learns about social dynamics and handling emotions. Horses are often honest, revealing, and operate on their own time table and agenda. Although each program is tailored to each individual, the work through horses enhances character and leadership qualities for the youth and helps them learn how to adapt to any situation.

The work begins with connecting to the horse on the ground through the use of equine language skills. Once the youth connects with the horse, the adoption of certain herd dynamics reveals the roles of leadership in this relationship. Riding and work under saddle are the ultimate goals, but consistency, determination, and persistence are often qualities achieved through this process.

Studies have shown that teens who identified having stable mentorships with an adult were more likely to not engage in at risk behaviors, they were better equipped to handle stress and emotions, and truly grow in a balanced way. Healthy mentors through teachers, family, community leaders, and their family doctors are important in their lives. This is what I would like to provide for teenagers.

Through the naturopathic treatment options as well as equine therapy, my wish is that adolescents can find support for their transition period. The journey through their teen and young adult years should be an adventure.