Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Talking SHARP

Brook is currently funded by the Camelot Foundation (www.camelotfoundation.org.uk)to run a project called SHARP (sexual health advocacy and research project). The project aims to train and support young people to be researchers and advocated on sexual health issues that matter to them. After a residential event a group of young people have begun exploring issues with their peers. Their first piece of research focuses on sexual health services. Yet again their findings confirm that they want any services to be close enough to get to, open when they want them to be, and friendly towards young people. These don't seem like big asks, however if young people still feel it necessary to tell us this is what they want, then clearly we haven't got there yet.

So let us imagine as sexual health service providers we get this universal access right. Young people know where we are, trust us to be nice to them and can get to us easily. As we work to get this bit right, we also need to find creative ways of motivating young people to think about contraception before they have sex. Last week one young man involved inour work told us that it was the chance to get tested for STIs and free condoms that motivating him and it struck me we often focus on finding out about those who don't access services and that we need to invest a bit more resource in finding out more about the stories of those young people who do access services and do use contraception successfully, so we can learn about the motivators and barriers, and develop our strategies and approaches accordingly.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Emergency contraception in schools - setting the record straight

Yet again there is a misleading story in the press about school based sexual health services this week. According to the story there are hundreds of eleven year olds having sex and being encouraged to do so by the provision of emergency contraception in schools.

Most young people under the age of 16 do not have sex. At 11 the numbers of children who have consensual sex, that is not abusive are tiny. Any professional told by an 11 year old they are having sex is always extremely concerned. In almost all cases it will be viewed as a child protection issue, and sensitive work with the child so they can identify what help is needed and the best way to get help will take place. Telling the parent may not always be the answer, if there is abuse or violence in the family for example.

This is true whether the health service provision is located in the community or provided on school premises. Across the country schools decide to establish health services on school grounds because young people and professionals tell them they are needed. Not just for sex advice but so young people can get help on a whole range of issues from stress, pressure and emotional well being, sorting out spots and smelly feet, getting contraception and emergency contraception, issues with family and friends etc. Providing these services is the right and moral thing for schools to do, particularly where young people cannot get to any others, for example those who live in rural areas and are bussed many miles to school each day.

And schools develop these services with the support of the absolute vast majority of parents and the community - yet we never hear their voices because of the deafening cry from the tiny numbers of parents who do not support them. We get many calls at Brook from parents who find themselves upset when they find their daughter is on the pill, or has found themselves pregnant. Typically the story takes a similar path - i wish she wasn't having sex, and if she is i wish she had been able to talk to me, and as the conversation develops parents say if felt she couldn't talk to me I am so pleased there was somewhere she could go to get help to stay safe.

That somewhere may be Brook, it may be a school based service, or it may be the local GP. The important thing is not where it is, but that it is provided by trained staff who are committed to young people's safety, who will help them think about the rights and choices they have, including the right not to have sex, and will also encourage them to talk to an adult they trust.

Up and down the country professionals are working hard to work in partnership with parents and to support young people to make real choices about relationships so they can enjoy and take responsibility for the sex they have, when they do decide to have it.

Six things i have said a lot recently and need others to say them to.

I have found myself saying the following things a lot to young people we work with, journalists, friends, my partner, family, parents, carers and professional colleagues over the last month or so - please pass them on to others by making people aware of this blog or email me and I can send them to you.

1. Most young people under the age of 16 do not have sex and if we forget this we contribute to young people's belief that everyone else is doing it
2. Teenage pregnancy rates in the UK are the lowest they have been for over twenty years and nationally the rates are continuing to go down
3. Sexually transmitted infection rates are increasing at least in part because we are encouraging more young people to get tested - eight years or so ago when we were developing the national sexual health strategy for England we did predict rates would go up before we expected to see them coming down
4. Celebrity culture is only one aspect of our culture around sex, sexuality and relationships - we must not get overly distracted by this and our challenge is to keep our eye on the big picture to promote a culture that values young people's developing sense of identity and sexuality and respects their rights
5. There is no scientific evidence to support reducing the time limit for abortion and we must maintain the upper limit at 24 weeks
6. Not all young people receive good quality Personal, Social and Health Education in schools (this is the subject in which teaching about sex and relationships takes place).

Friday, 6 July 2007

Inclusion at the heart of it

Last night Heart n Soul held their quarterly club night at the Albany Centre in Deptford. The club night is an inclusive event for people with disabilities. I was a member of a sexual health strategy group many years ago. When we were identifying groups of people vulnerable to sexual ill health the discussion became difficult. In that context, people were really talking about reducing STIs, not promoting positive sexual health, so people with disabilities were not established as a priority group.

Some of us believed then, as i do now, that promoting positive sexual health is about HIV and STI prevention. And it is about ensuring that groups of young people who have limited opportunities for social relationships, including those with physical and learning disabilities have opportunities to develop friendships and intimate relationships. Heart n Soul is a fantastic example of putting this philosophy into action, with disabled people right at the heart of it.