New Research That Will Change the Way You Think About Teens and Health

You can tell teens they need to eat more fruit or that it pays to exercise, but as we all know, that doesn’t mean they’ll take action. So what’s standing in the way?

Whenever I talk to teens who are struggling with their weight, they express frustration with the power that stress or sadness or bad body image has over their habits. If they don’t believe they’re strong enough to exercise, or if something’s making them feel lousy that day, no amount of knowledge will be able to trump that negativity.

Simply put: It takes a lot of energy to choose a healthier behavior, and bad emotions zap it.

That’s exactly why this caught my eye. In an article published last month in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers reported that a school health program addressing teens’ mental and physical needs may be more effective than a traditional class covering common health topics. The study set out to test a program called COPE (Creating Opportunities for Personal Empowerment), which uses cognitive-behavioral techniques to teach kids tactics to counter stress, anxiety, and negative thoughts. Combined with 20 minutes of physical activity, this novel approach showed interesting results. The group of teens receiving it had marked improvements in BMI and drank less alcohol, plus they had better academic performance. Those with significantly elevated depression scores pre-intervention fared better then those in the control group, too.

Fascinated, I called lead researcher Bernadette Melnyk, PhD, RN, the dean of the nursing school and chief wellness officer at Ohio State University. She developed the COPE program over two decades ago, and what she had to say about how you can incorporate its key principles—without uprooting your curriculum—will no doubt get you thinking.

Choices: Where did the idea for COPE come from?

Melnyk: If you look at a lot of the healthy lifestyle programs, they include nutrition education and physical activity, but they don’t have a strong mental health piece. We’ve seen that those programs don’t lead to good positive outcomes in the long-term. So I truly believed that it’s this mental health piece that’s been missing. One out of four adolescents has a mental health problem, yet less than 25% of them get any treatment. From a preventive standpoint, that’s a huge percentage of adolescents struggling with mental health issues, and that doesn’t even include those experiencing stress.

Choices: But what does that have to do with physical health?

Melnyk: Teaching teens that how they think directly relates to how they feel and how they behave can be eye-opening, and often times teens engage in risky behaviors [like drugs or drinking] because they haven’t thought about how they would react in those situations. Other research has shown that the higher levels of anxiety or depression a teen has, the less they think they can engage in healthy lifestyle habits. If you don’t address coping tactics and  life skills, you’re not going to help them change behaviors.

Choices: So give me an example of how you help a student build the skills they need to fight off negative thoughts?

Melnyk: One skill we teach is the ABC’s. The A is an activator event, which is something that happens to them that triggers the B, or negative belief. Say someone is in an art class, and a teen next to them says, “That’s the ugliest, weirdest art project I’ve ever seen.” What would follow for most teens would be the C, or the consequence of the negative belief: “Darn it, I can’t do anything right.” In COPE, we teach them to catch that negative belief as it happens and turn it around to a positive one: “Maybe he didn’t like my painting, but that’s just one person’s opinion.” You have to remember, most kids don’t think that way yet.

Choices: If teachers are interested in using COPE, is the curriculum available?

Melnyk: Yes! Tell them to contact me at cope [dot] melnyk [at] gmail [dot] com. In fact, I’m doing a training session next week with a group of teachers. Because the program is manualized, any teacher can incorporate it into his or her curriculum.

To read more about COPE and the connection between mental and physical health, check out Ohio State’s news release about the study.