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What the health: Ensuring the health of our future

Auckland, NZ — Last month, Palau observed a national holiday devoted to youth. The government runs a bureau whose purpose is to serve the youth and their interests. Yet, something is missing. Palau's youth as a population group lacks a sense of collective identity and a common voice that argues for youth issues in the public sphere.

The youth councils and semi-formal youth associations mainly focus on sporting and environmental cleanup activities but critically lack a substantial agenda to promote youth interests in national politics and in the media.

This lack of political advocacy renders them invisible, leaving them without an outlet or a channel through which they can call national attention to issues that negatively affect their health, such as physical and sexual abuse, housing, poverty, crime, drugs, boredom, etc., and the list goes on. We fail to even try assessing this situation.

In Palau, there exists a gap in health and social services. Focus and resources are extensive for infants and young children, adults and the elderly – but in between these two age groups are the youth who don’t get equal attention.

Health stats from the previous year show that aside from alcohol and drug use, depression presents itself as a major health issue among the young people in Palau. Yet, we struggle to come up with meaningful policy and prevention programs that address youth depression and substance use and abuse.

Adults have the tendency to shrug off the young with the expression “ugh, the youth nowadays…” Such dismissive attitude toward the youth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I say it’s our fault as adults, as parents, as traditional and elected officials. We are the catalysts that enable the youth to face so many social issues today. In our collective inability to see and acknowledge them as important and crucial part of society, we view and treat them as immature, irresponsible and lacking the necessary life skills that adults should have in order to navigate life. And too often we forget that the only role models they have in life are us. We forget that their struggles stem from our incompetence and lack of intent in dealing with their issues.

So we should be asking ourselves these questions: Why do we perceive youth issues with the same old attitude? What are the youth doing, or not doing, that is so wrong that it warrants such neglect and misunderstanding from society? Why do we think that at this stage in life they’re too young to learn about life, yet we expect them to be learning things on their own? Why do we think that whatever lessons and teachings we instilled in them as children are sufficient to see them through adolescence? Are we too concerned about our own welfare and well-being that we place the youth at the bottom of the nation’s priority list?

I believe the answers are there. We just need to shift our attitudes toward the youth and be more aware and accepting of failures in dealing with their issues. We need to invest time, resources and trust in them. We need to give them a voice and a chance for them to define their identity and place in our society. We need to consider them valuable partners that could bring to the table innovative and creative solutions to health and other issues they face.

Let’s not forget that when we were their age, we only made it through to adulthood because of the effort and care afforded to us by the generations that came before us. So let us in turn make an effort to ensure that the youth have a chance in life. Let us strive to make them a priority in our society, our culture, and economy. Let us make the youth proud of being who they really are: our children, our wealth, our future.

Gaafar Uherbelau is a social marketer for the Palau Ministry of Health and is currently studying Social Sciences for Public Health at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Send feedback to

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