Adolescents growing up in New Zealand have to navigate a gauntlet of dangers that are putting them at unprecedented risk, a major Government report says.
The report from the Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, says one in five young New Zealanders will face problems as they grow up that will affect the rest of their lives.
Alcohol, depression, drugs, bullying and earlier sexual development are among the issues singled out in the report, which was authored by two dozen leading researchers.
Many of their problems could be traced back to early childhood, sometimes even to the womb.
The report has made 11 broad recommendations, including:
* Significant investment in programmes for at-risk children and their families while they are still very young.
* More mental health screening, prevention and treatment programmes specifically for adolescents, along with a boost in the number of people trained to work with young people.
* Tighter alcohol regulations, including raising excise tax and a purchase age of 21.
It also criticises many previous and existing policies - both here and overseas - saying they were not based on evidence and had never been properly evaluated to see if they actually worked.
The report was commissioned in October 2009 by Prime Minister John Key, following concern about New Zealand's rates of adolescent death and injury.
''We have the highest rate of youth suicide among OECD countries, the fifth-highest teen pregnancy rate, and one of the highest death rates from car crashes.
''New Zealand's high rates of child abuse and domestic violence also had long-lasting repercussions for children as they grew up, the report said.
''Without intervention, 20-30 per cent of abused children grow up continuing the cycle of violence, in turn becoming abusers.''
Many young people were not psychologically mature until well into their 20s, with adverse consequences, the report said.
''In general, most of the risky and impulsive behaviours of adolescence reflect incomplete maturation of self-control and judgement.''
That had coincided with a growth in outside distractions and influences, including the rise of the internet and social media, more discretionary income and greater access to drugs and alcohol.
However, adolescents who were more likely to exhibit risky behaviour could often be identified while they were still young children, the report said.
''Children who will go on to exhibit a persistent pattern of anti-social behaviour can be distinguished from their peers as early as three years of age.
''It is now clear that early childhood is the critical period in which executive functions such as the fundamentals of self-control are established.''
The report recommended that the Government identify at-risk children while they were still very young, investing in programmes to help them and their parents.
Well-designed home visit schemes where a health or social worker visited the family frequently were effective, as were pre-school centre programmes for children with conduct problems.
It also urged the Government to invest in youth mental health, saying most depression began in adolescence but less than a fifth of young people received treatment.
''New Zealand has a woefully deficient number of mental health services that are aimed specifically at young people. Furthermore, doctors, teachers and parents are poorly trained to identify those young people who might be at risk.''
Far tighter restrictions on alcohol were also needed, the report said.
It endorsed the Law Commission's recent report, including recommendations that the Government had already rejected, such as increasing the purchase age and raising the price of alcohol.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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