Children and youth form the backbone of any country’s future development agenda. It is, therefore, important to ensure their health and wellbeing to empower them to fulfill their potential in life. A series of research studies conducted by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) have established that Australian children and youth continue to lag behind regarding key international health and wellbeing indicators despite the fact that Australia is one of the leading developed nations in the world. Consequently, ARACY, together with its partners, developed the ARACY Nest Action Agenda, which was adopted as the national plan to be used to improve the children and youth’s wellbeing in Australia. This paper investigates one of the Nest’s priority directions as postulated in the ARACY Nest Action Agenda. The priority direction under consideration is the third direction titled ‘Improving the physical health of young Australians’. Analysis indicates that improving the physical health of the Australian children and youth is the most important direction in achieving the reduction in the Australian child vulnerability from 22% to 15% as proposed in the Action Agenda (ARACY 2014).
The ARACY Nest Action Agenda plan was developed after it had become evident that the Australian children and youth were not doing as well as they should as compared to those from other OECD countries. The plan stipulated several desired outcomes and the priority directions that, if implemented accordingly, should enable the attainment of the outcomes (ARACY 2014). One of the major priority directions, as provided in the report, is to improve the physical health of young Australians. This text highlights the aspects of this provision and the benefits it holds for the Australian population, especially children and youth. It is important to note that no single outcome can be achieved on its own (ARACY 2013). The priority directions incorporate and coordinate actions that span across all the six outcomes as stipulated in the plan towards achieving the ultimate vision for the country.
Significance of the Priority Direction
The importance of improving the physical health of young Australians cannot be overstated. Improving the physical health has significant consequences regarding the level of economic development of any country (Strydom 2013). In general terms, the healthier the population, the more productive it becomes since the majority of the people work at optimal capacities, and there is reduced interdependencies (AIHW 2011). As Miller et al. (2014) aptly note, maintaining a good level of health outcomes directly influences the gross domestic product. The ARACY Nest Action Agenda underscores the significance of this priority direction through setting it as the prime avenue through which a reduction of the Australian child’s vulnerability can be achieved (ARACY 2014). If this priority direction is correctly and efficiently implemented then the vulnerability rates will reduce from the current 22% to15% (ARACY 2014; Miller et al. 2014). Consequently, the Australian GDP is also expected to grow by an average of 7.35% over a 60-years period (ARACY 2014). Improving the physical health of young Australians, therefore, promises immense economic gains regarding growth and development.
Another major consequence of improving the physical health of young Australians is a corresponding improvement in the social and emotional wellbeing of the Australians (ARACY 2014). As indicated earlier, none of the priority directions or outcomes is independent of others. As such, improving the physical health will also improve the other aspects of life (AIHW 2012). For instance, the children and the youth will also experience improved psychological health as they will less likely experience stress and other mental health problems. Due to their improving physical health, the children and youth will also make better choices in life. For instance, the rate of substance abuse will decline as the youth will find more opportunities to become gainfully employed or engage in meaningful activities in life (Barnes and Rowe 2013). Moreover, if children and youth are healthy, they will have a positive outlook in life, avoiding body dissatisfaction and other complexities that dent self-esteem and confidence thus enabling them to become active citizens and enhance their public participation (Little and Sodha 2012). Improving the physical health of the young Australians, therefore, bestows synergetic benefits that impact the whole of the social and emotional wellbeing of the youth.
Current Status of the Priority Direction
However, the priority direction of improving the physical health of young Australians, as it stands, has only been moderately achieved (ARACY 2014). Australia scores a mixture of outcomes results. There are some areas it performs exceptionally well while in others it lags considerably far behind (AIHW 2012). For instance, Australia performs considerably well in the low-birth-weight indicator (ARACY 2013). It ranks among the OECD countries in the middle-third. The score indicates that the Australian government has an effective prenatal program that has improved the unborn child and pregnant mothers’ health. Australia also performed relatively well in eradicating dental decay. However, the number of Australian children and youth who were becoming overweight or obese was rapidly increasing. An average of 30% of the Australians, both boys and girls, aged between 5 and 24 years were either obese or overweight (ARACY 2013). The high obesity prevalence rates potentially influence their self-confidence and other public participation outcomes.
Australia further scores a lukewarm performance in areas such as teenage suicide rates, teenage pregnancies, and substance abuse. Australia is ranked 22nd out of 34 in the prevalence of teenage pregnancies (ARACY 2014). It is also the 20th out of 33 in the prevalence of youth suicides with ten Australian youth aged between 15 and 24 years taking their lives out of every 100,000 (ARACY 2013). When considering substance abuse, Australia ranked 14th out of 26 with 7% of the youth aged between 12 and 17 years smoking cigarettes, 6% indulging in risky drinking and 16% taking illicit drugs (ARACY 2013). The areas that scored poorly and demanded utmost attention were infant mortality, diabetes and asthma incidences. However, the Australian youth and children demonstrated incredible resilience with regards to body dissatisfaction ranking second out of 28.
Despite the relatively acceptable physical health outcomes the Australian children and youth exhibited, there was a worrying pattern that indicated that the indigenous communities had poorer health outcomes than the rest of the Australian population (ARACY 2014; AIHW 2011). They had an incremental 12% susceptibility to getting sick (ARACY 2013). Most of these incidences were, however, attributed to other social factors, in which the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander children and youth still scored poorly as compared to the rest of the Australian population. For instance, the indigenous communities were overrepresented in children-out-of-care, as well as in the juvenile system by more than 10% (Miller et al. 2014). The Australian population is an ethnically-diverse one with an upward of 20% having been born outside Australia. The fact that there is an adverse overrepresentation of the indigenous communities signifies that there are disparities in the access to health care services that must be addressed if at all the improvement of the physical health of young Australian is to be achieved on a national scale (ARACY 2014).
Determinants of Health and Wellbeing
There are numerous determinants of health and wellbeing that contribute significantly to the aforementioned outcomes. Addressing these determinants ensures better physical and mental outcomes for an Australian child (Svarich 2014). One of the major determinants is the level of income as well as income disparities (Sheffield and Landrigan 2011). Income determines the availability and enjoyment of the basic material things necessary to lead a comfortable life. Families that have high incomes are better placed to fend for themselves. These families can afford to acquire food, shelter, water and money that they can appropriate to lead healthy lives. The reverse is also true; families that have low or no income at all cannot fulfill these basic needs and end up being unhealthy, having unfavorable health outcomes (AIHW 2011). Income disparities influence the wellbeing perceptions of the society. The perceptions of inequality, in turn, at times, influence the low-income earners to engage in criminal activities to accumulate material wealth (Miller et al. 2014). Therefore, addressing the levels of unemployment rates will have a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of an Australian child.
The levels of happiness and positive outlook also determine the health outcomes for the Australian children and youth. The happier they are, the better their health outcomes (AIHW 2012). Instances such as youth suicides and body dissatisfaction will reduce if the youth feel good about themselves; having a sense of identity and self-esteem. Another major determinant is the presence, or lack thereof, of support networks and services (ARACY 2014; Barnes and Rowe 2013). These support systems alleviate peer pressure and greatly contribute towards reducing youth smoking, use of illegal drugs and engagement in violent criminal activities (Strydom 2013). It will also promote social inclusion especially for the indigenous communities that have lagged behind because they are often neglected when health interventions are rolled out.
There are numerous strategies that can be proposed to improve the health of young Australians. One of the strategies that demonstrate the highest potential to make the biggest health impact among Australian children and youth is the inclusion of healthy eating, physical activities and body image courses in the school curriculum (ARACY 2014; AIHW 2011). Currently, the onus of instituting such courses rests with the local district committees and the head of schools. Making these subjects mandatory to teach will enhance knowledge sharing on healthy eating and lifestyles. The implication of this strategy is that the Australian children and youth will know how, from an early age, to discern between healthy and unhealthy foods thus reducing the unhealthy prevalence of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart diseases among others (Miller et al. 2014). They will also understand the importance of physical exercise in promoting physical well-being (Svarich 2014; Little and Sodha 2012). Crucially, they will have a positive outlook with regards to their body image. This strategy may be paired with other strategies such as banning of advertisement of junk foods and alcoholic drinks at certain specific times of the day thus reducing the children and youth exposure to such potentially harmful information (ARACY 2014). Alleviating unhealthy eating behaviors, enhancing participation in physical activities and promoting a positive body image will go a long way towards achieving the priority direction of improving the physical health of young Australians.
In conclusion, it is clear that the ARACY Nest Action Agenda is an essential national plan that can be implemented to achieve the goal of improved health and wellbeing of Australian children and youth across the key international indicators. The priority direction of improving the physical health of young Australians is one of the core facilitators of the goal. Currently, Australia’s performance has been lukewarm with some indicators having positive scores while others had unsatisfactory scores. To improve the health and wellbeing of Australian children and youth, the government should consider designing strategies that improve their physical health first of all. The inclusion of healthy eating, physical activities and body image courses in the school curriculum will provide a good grounding for other health interventions to be designed. If Australia sticks to the provisions of the ARACY Nest Action Agenda plan, it can enhance the health and wellbeing of an Australian child significantly, brightening the Australians’ future.