Teenagers away at boarding school, college or university may be out of sight – apart from the occasional Skype session, of course – but for an expat parent they’re never out of mind. DR MÉLI NOËL, a family doctor who has a special interest in adolescent wellbeing and health, discusses some of the main issues of student health, whether living home or away.
Being a student means taking ownership and making independent decisions regarding your health and wellbeing, she says. Students visit her for various reasons, including mental health issues, travel health, and sexual health issues such as birth control, and sexually transmitted disease screening and prevention.
In some countries, student life is synonymous with parties. Dr Noël points out that these years are a time of experimentation and emancipation: “Even though we might wish it didn’t, this also means experimenting with drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.”
Singapore, she says, is no exception. “It might not be as common here as it is abroad, but we still see it.”
However, there is a fine line between experimentation and abuse. “It’s important to discuss the effects of drugs and alcohol with your teenage children. Keep the lines of communication open so that they feel comfortable talking about any problem that may arise.” What’s more, seek help from your family doctor if you think they may be struggling with substance abuse.
Diet, Sleep and Lifestyle
Student life tends to be extremely busy with studies, exams, sports, volunteering and other activities. Adolescents are notorious for not getting enough sleep, says Dr Noël – studies show that they actually need between nine and 9.5 hours of sleep per night.
Still-growing bodies and brains require a healthy, varied diet that includes lots of fruit, vegetables and proteins. “Instant noodles will not sustain them for very long, so do teach them a few basic recipes before sending them out into the world!”
A Healthy Mind
Apart from everyday coughs and colds, says Dr Noël, anxiety and depression are the main reasons teenage students come to see her.
“These usually result from a chemical imbalance in the brain’s neurotransmitters,” she explains, “so urging someone to ‘snap out of it’ does not work.” Triggers include difficult life events, like failing a class or a relationship breaking up, but sometimes there is no identifiable cause. “It helps to have a good support system of family, friends and a boyfriend or girlfriend, along with a healthy lifestyle that includes team activities such as sport or the arts.”
That said, anxiety and depression often cannot be prevented. “If you’re feeling worried and helpless, take your teenage child to your family doctor for effective treatment with counselling or medication. And, if you fear they might be in danger of hurting themselves, take them to a hospital urgently.”
“Being a teenager can be tough,” concludes Dr Noël, “but it can also be an amazing time. It’s a time where you leave behind the child you were to become the adult you’re meant to be. It means trying new things, pushing boundaries and making mistakes. But having an open-minded, present and supportive parent can make all the difference in the world.”
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