Dona Milne: Maturity needed in sexual health talks

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Like many whose job it is to help improve health outcomes for young people, I look forward to a day when matters related to sex and sexual health will be discussed in a mature and accurate way.

Last Monday, the Evening News ran a headline on its front page: “Condom clinic for every high school”. I was disappointed by the coverage, but I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify a few points. Perhaps this is the start of a more mature relationship with those working in sexual health and the media.

So let’s begin with some facts: in Lothian we have had Healthy Respect drop-in services for the last ten years or so. They started out as sexual health drop-ins and have gradually grown to include all aspects of health and wellbeing, including stop smoking, alcohol and drug advice as well as mental health support. They are in or near to schools making them easy for young people aged 13-18 to access and are staffed mostly by youth workers and school nurses.

The drop-ins are popular among young people – they are local and provide someone to talk to about everything from exam stress to family breakdown. They do provide condoms, access to pregnancy testing and testing for some sexually transmitted infections as part of this holistic service. Drop-in staff can also make a referral to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services if that is what a young person needs, but often someone to talk to in a safe space is enough to start with. Labelling the drop-ins “condom clinics” does them a disservice.

Young people tell us that they want relationships, sexual health and parenthood education that is factual and interesting. They know that it needs to be appropriate to their age and value being treated with respect and taken seriously. They also want access to services when they need them and they want them to be specifically for young people and delivered to a high standard.

We have had some mature and informative conversations with young people recently through the Edinburgh Youth Issues Forum, helping us to see how we can improve mental health support for young people, how to provide more meaningful sex and relationships education and how to meet the needs of those young people who face stigma day to day, such as those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

So, why don’t we follow the example set by our young people and let’s have a more mature response to young people’s health needs and services in the future.

Dona Milne is deputy director of public health at NHS Lothian.