This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Teenagers across the state will be able to participate in events promoting healthy practices, including diet and exercise, during Pennsylvania Teen Health Week. The initiative, which runs Jan. 9-13, was conceived by physician Laura Offutt and is supported by the Center for Education and Public Initiatives at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
“This week is a catalyst for teens and passionate supporters of teen wellness and teen well-being to get together and focus on teen health,” said Offutt, who runs a website that offers wellness information for young people.
“I’m an internist,” she said. “A lot of the disease states we see later in life are due to health practices that are begun in teen years.”
Students in Philadelphia will have the chance to mark the initiative, now in its second year, with an event at the Mütter Museum in Center City from 4 to 6 p.m. on Jan. 13. The event will include snacks and teen-friendly activities to allow participants to continue the conversation about health.
Offutt’s website, RealTalkwithDrOffutt.com, includes a toolkit with activities for entire schools or for individual classes or school groups to use throughout the week, as well as sample social media posts to promote the initiative. Each day focuses on a specific teen health issue: diet and exercise, violence, mental health, sexual development and health, and substance use and abuse.
“The idea is that the toolkit is a skeleton to make it as easy as possible for schools to get involved with minimal or zero money,” Offutt said.
Sample activities include having students design ads to more effectively sell healthy food or having teens take an online quiz to assess the healthy nature of their relationship.
Offutt worked on the toolkit with 16 students who were interning with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia during the summer. The high school students attended various Philadelphia schools, including Franklin Learning Center, Science Leadership Academy, Philadelphia High School for Girls, String Theory Charter High School, George Washington Carver High School, Paul Robeson High School, Furness High School, and Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber.
“The students put together two activities for the violence-prevention section of the toolkit,” Offutt said.
These same students will lead at least one event at their respective high schools, sharing photos on social media to promote the week.
Pennsylvania Teen Health Week will kick off at the Capitol building in Harrisburg. Students from at least one Philadelphia school, Audenried Charter High School, will attend, along with many of the summer interns.
“We’re hoping that legislators will be there, and we’re asking any group or school to contact their local legislator to see if they will participate,” Offutt said.
She has also begun the process of making this week a national initiative. Her resolution proposing the idea to the American Medical Association passed in November, gaining support for the project to move forward.
Offutt began her teen health website in 2013 to combat the incorrect health information that she often heard from her children’s friends and to provide teens with a reliable source of medical information.
“There are two big misconceptions that I hear often,” Offutt said. “One is that adults don’t think teens care about their own health. The other is a lot of teens think adults don’t care about teen health.”
The website allows users to submit anonymous questions that Offutt answers in posts that fall into categories such as “mental health” and “teens and alcohol.”
Each summer since the launch of her website, Offutt has worked with teens to help build her online presence. She considers input about the language and content of her blog posts and also features these students as guest bloggers.
“Health advisers really need to get [on social media], because if not, that void is filled with people without qualifications or by people who don’t have the best interests of the teen at heart,” said Offutt.
“Teens can be positive health role models for their friends and families. And families can learn to be better health advocates for their teens.”