Stephen Hunter School of Public Health

Disparities in health can become larger after high school

Study results could help young adults, especially women, prevent unhealthy behaviours and outcomes

Adolescence has been described as a critical period for building a foundation for lifelong health and ensuring the well-being of the next generation. While high school environments may protect teenagers from the impact of some social inequities, potential difficulty obtaining housing, work and post-secondary education after graduation can create social health gaps for teens and young adults. These life changes may also produce gender gaps in health, as women are more likely to experience inequitable access to education and employment than men, placing them at an even higher risk for poor health.

Researcher Stephen Hunter is a WCHRI postdoctoral fellow examining the impact of social inequities, such as income inequality, on health. “Our findings may help prevent unhealthy behaviours and outcomes in teenagers during and after high school,” he says. They could also help guide interventions to prevent women from facing adverse social factors.

Hunter is working in the School of Public Health with supervisor Roman Pabayo, using data from the Cannabis, Obesity, Mental health, Physical activity, Smoking and Sedentary behaviour (COMPASS) study. COMPASS is an ongoing investigation that collects information on adolescent health behaviours and outcomes every year from a large sample of secondary schools across British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. This information is linked with school and community policy, program and resource data. Hunter is adding to the COMPASS data by asking grade 12 students from the study to complete additional surveys about their experiences after high school. 

Understanding the impact that income inequality has on adolescent health outcomes and behaviour trajectories is vital for promoting health at a population level. Hunter hopes this research can help identify adolescents who are most vulnerable for adverse health and provide evidence to support the allocation of resources to them. 

“If we can identify risk factors for unhealthy behaviours and health outcomes either during the high school years or immediately after school completion, especially for women and among those living in areas with poorer societal health, this information could be used for prevention planning and steering health and health behaviour trajectories in a favorable direction,” he says.

Hunter notes that the support he receives for this research is important for his growth and confidence as an early career researcher. “Because of this support, I have been able to seek additional opportunities to enhance this project, extend my research network, and expand my knowledge in women and children’s health research,” he says.

Stephen Hunter is supervised by Roman Pabayo. His fellowship has been funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.