Research Nugget

Exploring Health Perceptions and Priorities of South African Youth

One third South Africa’s population consists of young adults aged 15-34. The periods of adolescence and young adulthood are crucial for the development of health literacy, which has a significant impact on lifelong health and can decrease the burden of disease in adulthood. Poor health literacy, particularly in the context of common unplanned pregnancies, can have an impact on multiple generations.

A research study funded by the NRF examined the health perceptions and priorities of South African youth. The aim of the study was to explore the health perceptions and priorities of South African youth and young adults (AYA) to inform contextually relevant health literacy intervention design and to establish a local Youth Health Council for the youth in Soweto (LifeLabSoweto).

The research was conducted at a youth development centre in Soweto, Johannesburg, chosen for its historical and social significance. It has high unemployment, gender-based violence, food insecurity, and other challenges that often hinder young people’s ability to prioritise health.

The research findings show that AYAs perceive health as a mix of physical, psychological, and emotional factors influenced by their social environment, including family, peers, social norms, environment, and access to services.

Out of the 76 AYA contacted, only 39 participated. The average age of the participants was 21.3 years, and the median health literacy score was 16.9. Only 15% of the participants had an adequate health literacy score (≥21/24). Although women had higher scores than men, the difference was not significant.

The survey covered the following three major themes:

i) Perceptions of Good Health:

Several AYA perceived health as largely influenced by financial standing, while poor health also came at financial cost.

“Being healthy is being wealthy. Life insurance is much cheaper when you’re healthier”. “When you start being sick, money is needed”

ii) Perceptions of Good Health:

Several AYA voiced how poor health was related to ‘living in the moment’ with a focus on image and popularity taking priority. This was seen as potentially creating a negative impact on the future of the country.

“An unhealthy person lives impulsively, they don’t have priorities, they just live because they are alive”

iii) Health Awareness and Engagement:

Good health was seen to involve both being health conscious and engaging in healthy behaviours, including those for managing stress in everyday life.

“For my future, I think I should exercise and prevent illnesses and live a long life, be fit, for my mentality; be able to think outside the box and not have stress”.

The researcher concluded the study by indicating that stress-focused health literacy interventions are needed for AYA-challenging environments. Understanding the complex constructions and the core tenets of health that young people hold can inform contextually relevant intervention co-creation for improved health literacy as youth transition into adulthood.