Pediatrician champions adolescent health through advocacy

Dr. Tamera Coyne-Beasley translates her community-based health research into practice and policy to protect the under-served young adults

Pediatrician champions adolescent health through advocacy click to enlarge Dr. Tamera Coyne-Beasley champions adolescent health through community-based research and advocacy.

Every generation faces challenges, whether they be war or economic depression, and the current generation of adolescents is no different. Today’s young adults, however, face a new set of challenges largely unknown to the adults in their lives. 

Social media, for example.

“In the past, if you made a mistake, a small circle of people knew about it and eventually it was forgotten,” says Tamera Coyne-Beasley, MD, a professor of pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine and Director of the N.C. Child Health Resource Network. “Now, with social media and people making videos of everything, the potential for long last, far reaching, deep embarrassment is present .”

Such embarrassment, along with cyber-bullying, is a new cause of suicide among adolescents and young adults, and it’s a motivation behind Dr. Coyne-Beasley’s advocacy work in suicide prevention. Part of her determination comes from her medical experiences and the understanding that so many of the problems facing adolescents, including suicide, are preventable.

“Suicide is leading cause of mortality in this age group,” explains Coyne-Beasley. “It can take a number of forms, such as ‘suicide by car’ or ‘suicide by cop.’ And we can prevent it with counseling, to help them understand the consequences of their actions while guiding them to make the right choices and provide them with supportive individuals including mental health providers. We can also work harder to prevent many of the risk factors we know are associated with depression and suicide.”

“Vaccinations are another avenue of prevention,” she adds. “There has been no other medical innovation or device that has been able to eradicate disease or eliminate health disparities.”

She works for greater access to human papilloma virus vaccinations for adolescents as part of her work to increase overall access for health care for that population, including mental health care.

Dr. Coyne-Beasley and other adolescent health specialists see the maturation process as lasting until age 26, well beyond what most people think of as the end of adolescence.

“We know that the brain is still ‘plastic’ until 26 and that your thinking is still evolving,” she explains. “If you divide the years of adolescence into two parts, from 11 to 17 and from 18 to 26, it’s that latter half where more risk-taking behaviors occur.”

“After the age of 18, many young people have greater access to dangerous things, some which they can now do legally. They may have —greater access to alcohol, drugs, sexual activity, and less supervision from older adults,” she continues. Add to that a driver’s license and weapons and the potential for harm increases.

Dr. Coyne-Beasley sites a number of issues facing today’s adolescents that may be unfamiliar to previous generations of adults: low employment, even with the benefit of a college education, a general uncertainty about the future, and an increased rate of violence, including sexual violence, that younger adults face even on college campuses.

“It’s a problem on every campus, the binge drinking, the sexual assaults,” says Coyne-Beasley. “I talk to the residents and my colleagues about the importance of talking with young people about their sexual health and relationships. They need to be comfortable having these conversations with younger patients—and they need to have those conversations.” 

Dr. Coyne-Beasley sees the potential for education and outreach as a beneficial aspect of social media.

“We’ve found social media to be a good way to provide education on matters of interest to adolescents,” she says. “It’s a non-judgmental source of information, something they can access privately.”

“It’s a daunting task,” she says with a laugh. “If you have children, you know how it is: chasing them from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, and the mediums can change rapidly.”

With two teen children of her own, Dr. Coyne-Beasley has first-hand experience with these challenges. She also balances her work life with personal outreach: she does faith-based mission work in Africa, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

“I think this helps me be a better person and a better physician,” she says of her mission work. “First, it’s good to work in places with other people and other cultures; and second, it’s good exercise to work in a place where you might not have all the modern tools and conveniences.”

In addition to her advocacy for immunization and suicide prevention, she also works with several national and local groups on youth violence prevention, firearms safety, and obesity. 

“I want to provide a voice for the voiceless, for those who may not have a choice in their treatment,” Dr. Coyne-Beasley says of her advocacy work for adolescents. “Adults have many ways to influence things—by voting, for instance. But younger people tend to get left out of the decision-making process.”

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