Study shows high rate of health problems among troubled adolescents


November 29th, 2011

Lincoln, NE – More often than not, adolescents in residential care have typically suffered from behavioral problems at both home and school. But that might not be the whole story. A new study conducted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers has shed light on these troubled children, and the extent of the challenges they’ve faced.

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That study, conducted in collaboration with Nebraska-based Boys Town family services , has revealed expected, but no less worrisome statistics about youths in residential treatment centers. In particular, caregivers are concerned by data showing that more than a third of those youth enter treatment with existing and previously unaddressed physical ailments – like asthma.

Tim Nelson is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and lead author of the study.

The study, conducted by lead author Tim Nelson in collaboration with Boys Town researchers, revealed that more than a third of youths in residential treatment centers have physical health conditions. (Photo courtesy University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

“That’s considerably higher than national estimates for the general population,” explained Nelson. “So that’s really concerning to see such high rates because it really can complicate the clinical picture for these kids and complicate their treatment.”

It’s a subject that Nelson found interest in. He began to work alongside researchers from Boys Town, drawing upon nearly ten years of information gathered by the organization.

“Based on previous research, as well as just clinical observations, we had reason to believe that these youth may have significant physical health issues,” he stated. “Those issues may often be overlooked. Because no one had actually examined the physical health of these kids, we thought it was an important study to do so that we would understand their physical health status, and then help to really tailor treatment around those needs.”

According to Nelson, treatment that children had received might have been incomplete or sporadic, due to the inconsistent nature of their lives. It’s not uncommon for children to be sent to several different homes before eventually ending up at a treatment center. And when their behavioral problems are severe, it can be easy to overlook their medical needs. But in fact, the two are sometimes interrelated.

“Behavioral and emotional problems can be very stressful,” remarked Nelson. “Chronic stress and intense stress can undermine the immune system, leading to increased risk for physical health problems over time. We also know that many of the problems that increase the risk for mental health issues like family stress, poverty and other risk factors, may also contribute to physical health issues. So there may be a common environmental set of risks that not only influence behavioral and emotional functioning, but also physical functioning.”

All-in-all, it’s a problem that could have serious implications for the more than 200,000 adolescents currently in residential care across the United States. And it’s grabbed the attention of administrators and caretakers at Boys Town in Nebraska.

Ronald Thompson is director of the Boys Town National Research Institute for Child and Family Studies, and he collaborated on the recent UNL study. Thompson says Boys Town will be looking to further integrate health care into their programs.

“We’ve already begun doing this,” Thompson pointed out. “When kids come into our residential program, we try to do the best job we can of finding their previous medical records. We have already begun educating youth about their healthcare needs and integrating that into the services we provide while they’re in our program. This a fairly new endeavor that we’ve done, but we’ve already begun to implement a few of those kind of things.”

He added that while it has been important to provide youth in Boystown’s care with information about their health problems, it doesn’t stop with a simple diagnosis.

“We send with them accurate information about their healthcare needs and try to make sure we connect them with a provider that can meet their needs,” said Thompson. “As we make what we call transition plans’ for kids going back home or wherever they might be going when they leave here, that we make sure there’s some kind of plan for supporting healthcare needs if they have them when they depart.”

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