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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Teen Stress: Education is Key to Coping

By Irvin B. Harrell

Anxiety and stress, once seemingly the sole domain of adults, is a real and growing problem among teens. And for many, the stress and anxiety they feel reaches unhealthy levels.

But Dr. Muge Akpinar-Elci, director of Old Dominion University's Center for Global Health, said education is key to overcoming these conditions that can affect their interpersonal relationships and performance at school and other activities.

There can be many triggers for stress and anxiety in teens, including grades, relationships, navigating full academic and activity schedules as well as deciding what college to attend or what to do after high school.

According to a stress survey conducted online by the American Psychological Association in 2014, among a sample of 1,018 teens, 30 percent reported feelings of stress, depression and sadness.

"It's a problem because a large number of teens who are suffering with stress and anxiety are not getting treatment," Akpinar-Elci said. "Teens are more likely to report that stress has no impact on their mental or physical health."

Although the impact of stress on teen's physical health is still unclear, she said it has been determined that chronic stress can weaken the immune system and decrease overall wellbeing. For that reason, it is essential to manage daily stress.

To combat the negative effects of unchecked stress and anxiety, Akpinar-Elci emphasized the importance of:

  • Having an active lifestyle;
  • Healthy eating;
  • Getting enough sleep;
  • Recognizing the importance of play; and
  • Talking to parents or other trusted adults when in need of assistance.

This March, Akpinar-Elci's son, Adam Elci, an eighth-grader at Ghent Montessori School in Norfolk, was selected for an internship with Old Dominion University's Center for Global Health.

As part of his internship, Elci produced a short film with Angelica Walker, a Masters of Public Health student at ODU who is a public relationship specialist at the center, called "Decompress Your Stress." The film targets elementary and middle school students and teaches positive ways to cope with stress through active lifestyles.

The movie project was recently selected for screening this month in Atlanta at the 2017 American Public Health Association's Global Public Health Film Festival.

"I didn't expect that they would pick my film," Elci said. "It was a big surprise. I am very proud and happy that they chose me.

Akpinar-Elci said being selected by APHA is a major honor. She noted that thousands of public health professionals from around the world attend the APHA meeting each year, where they present research, promote best practices, advocate for public health issues and network.

Since an active lifestyle includes physical and mental wellness, "Decompress Your Stress" gives viewers information on what an active lifestyle is, why it's important, tips for mental wellness, tips for physical wellness and how modern technology can contribute to health. These tips are positive alternatives to risky behaviors and coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drug abuse.

The film may be viewed on the APHA conference website.

Akpinar-Elci the film is just one example of outreach the Center for Global Health has created to educate the next generation about global health. Over the past two years, the center has hosted two middle-schoolers and one high-schooler. In 2016, the center helped a Virginia Beach high school open a Global Health Club. This spring, the center provided a substance abuse program to middle-schoolers at Ghent Montessori School and in the summer taught elementary students the importance of maintaining a healthy environment through a Global Health Heroes Project.

"We are very keen on involving students in our community-based projects," Akpinar-Elci said. "Our internships are an incredible opportunity for middle or high school students to learn more about global health, develop leadership skills and help us create a better future."