By Tamera Manzanares
When you’re young, and even when you’re older, conversations about sexual health can be difficult. But for adolescents and teens, especially, there is a lot at stake. The repercussions of unplanned pregnancy, a sexually transmitted infection or unhealthy relationship can have lasting impact on a teen’s health and goals.
But these are complicated topics. Diana Hornung is a family practice physician and medical director at Northwest Colorado Health, which provides publicly funded family planning services. She said that in order for teens to make good choices, they need a safe place to get accurate information and help sorting through physical changes and concerns. Conversations open the door for teens to better understand their sexual health separate from the influence of peers, social media and potentially harmful misinformation. This helps them take ownership of their bodies and protect themselves.
“The more comfortable you are about your own body and asking questions, the more comfortable you are going to be making healthy decisions,” she said. “But you can’t be educated if you can’t have conversations.” Some teens can candidly discuss issues such as birth control with their parents. Others may not feel comfortable or do not have a trusted adult to turn to with questions. Some parents may feel uncomfortable or simply do not have the answers. Publicly funded family planning programs help ensure teens and low-income women and men have a medical resource for information about sexual and reproductive health and access to birth control and health screenings. Family planning programs are offered at Northwest Colorado Health’s clinics in Steamboat Springs and Craig, and Planned Parenthood. They are supported by Title X Family Planning funds and Medicaid.
Nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are described by women as unplanned, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Most unplanned pregnancies occur among young and/or low income women. Unplanned pregnancy can hinder a woman’s ability to pursue education and workforce goals that will provide stability for herself and her family. Reducing unintended pregnancy helps prevent prematurity, low-birth weight and other poor birth outcomes. According to research compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, which focuses on advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, these negative factors can result from pregnancies spaced more closely than is medical recommended.
Testing for sexually transmitted infections and discussing how to prevent these diseases is an important part of a family planning visit. Finding and treating diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea can avert serious health problems and the spread of disease to partners. Cervical cancer prevention, including Pap tests and screening and immunization for HPV, the virus that can cause cervical cancer, is included in these services.
Family planning programs are working. An assessment noted by the Guttmacher Institute estimated that every dollar spent on family planning in 2010 saved $7 in costs related to pregnancy, birth, newborn care, sexually transmitted infections and reproductive cancers.
Family planning services are confidential; teens can make an appointment without their parents’ consent or knowledge. Ideally, parents play a role in their teen’s sexual health education. Family planning services can assist in this process. It’s helpful to think of a family planning visit not just in terms of sexual health but as an opportunity for teens to check in with a healthcare provider to discuss safe behaviors and healthy habits, as well as get up-to-date on immunizations and screenings, Hornung said. “Communication is so important. Think about what is realistic for you in terms of communicating with your child,” she said. “If you need help, your family healthcare provider is a great resource.” To make an appointment for a family planning visit at Northwest Colorado Health, call 970-879-1632. Low or no cost long-acting reversible contraception (IUDs and implants) are available. Learn more.