Youths’ No. 1 killer: Murder

Alameda County issues first report on the health disparities of its young people
By Rebecca Vesely, STAFF WRITER
Inside Bay Area
Article Last Updated:
Homicide is the leading cause of death among Alameda County youths, and rates of sexually transmitted diseases are soaring, according to a first-ever report on youth health released Wednesday.

“Many of our young people are hurting because we haven’t given them the attention they need,” said Arnold Perkins, Alameda County public health director, who issued the report.

Striking health disparities exist among youth depending on their race, ethnicity and where they live, says the report, which focuses solely on Alameda County youth.

For instance, African-American youth had the highest rates of poverty, homicide, foster care placement and high school dropouts. Latino youth had the highest rates of teen births and being overweight.

In 2001-03 the homicide rate among all 15- to 21-year-olds in the county was 21 per 100,000 people — seven times higher than national Healthy People 2010 objectives.

While the overall high school dropout rate countywide is 13 percent, youth attending Oakland Unified School District had a dropout rate of 36 percent, according to the report.

The link between education and good health is well-known and something that youth experience every day, teens said.

Darius Bowden, 19, of Oakland said he and his peers need a combination of physical, mental and emotional health for well-being. Good health includes personal safety and opportunities, he added.

“If you have a job and have something to do, you won’t be on the corner selling drugs, and you will be able to help your family,” Bowden said. He defined a job not as service employment but something with opportunity for advancement, like an internship.

While the report found that just 16 percent of youth are uninsured, health officials said this figure is misleading because insurance doesn’t necessarily translate to services.

“We believe half of students at Oakland Unified School District don’t have adequate access to services,” said Alex Briscoe, assistant director of County Health Care Services.

Briscoe said mental health care is especially needed. The report found that one in three 11th-graders had experienced substantial depression in the past year, meaning they felt so sad and hopeless that they stopped participating in usual activities for at least two weeks.

More than 100 youths ages 15 to 24 are hospitalized each year for suicide attempts, and about 11 succeed in committing suicide, the report found.

Officials released the report at Youth UpRising, an East Oakland youth center that offers mental and physical health services. Youth UpRising serves about 300 youths per day and has a youth-run cafe and many after-school programs.

Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth UpRising, said she sees the report findings first-hand every day.

For example, the report indicated that 25 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds have been sexually active. Nearly half did not use a condom the last time they had sex.

Alameda County had the highest incidence of chlamydia and gonorrhea for girls ages 15 to 24 in California, according to the report.

The health clinic at Youth UpRising treats young women with these sexually transmitted diseases, which sometimes lead to sterility, Simmons said.

On a brighter note, about 60 percent of 11th-graders in the county said they had high levels of caring relationships, and

68 percent had high levels of expectations for them.

But just 31 percent had high levels of opportunities for meaningful activities, the report found.

The county used state, federal and local data plus information provided by local universities, hospitals and laboratories to compile the report.

Perkins, who is retiring as county health director at the end of the month, said the findings should be used to develop programs that serve youth over the next two years, including more school-based health services.

In July, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he intends to develop a plan to add 500 health clinics to elementary schools statewide.

Perkins said, “We need to have some baseline information on where our youth are and stop guessing. Some of the health issues they are facing, if we don’t address them now, they will be lifelong issues.”

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