How Schools and Health Centers Can Help Tackle the STI Epidemic in Youth

Written by Baila Salifou, SBHA Youth Advisory Council Member

The following reflects Baila’s lived experiences, thoughts, and opinions. 

Schools play an important and unique role in serving the healthcare needs of students. The sexually transmitted infections (STI) epidemic is highly prevalent in young people who, according to the CDC, account for 50% of new infections annually, yet make up only 25% of the sexually active population. Untreated infections can have long-term health implications such as infertility, organ damage, cancer, and even death. Students uneducated about how to take care of their reproductive health have a greater risk of making unhealthy decisions, which may ultimately affect school performance. Schools serve as an opportunity to not only educate students on academia, but the resources they have available to them to serve their health needs. 

Service providers and schools have a critical role in preparing youth to develop into fully functioning adults. Educational programs and workshops are a great way to promote healthier decisions regarding students’ sexual health. Access to knowledge is such a privilege to have, and if it wasn’t for my intro to public health course in college, I would have never received comprehensive sexual health education. Knowing the dangers of unprotected sexual behaviors, and being educated on the severity of the epidemic made me more cautious. Hosting educational programs will have the same effect on your students. Students can be incentivized to attend these educational workshops through giveaways, contests, or even small things like providing food. To make this even more successful, consider using other youth to be a part of hosting the program. This will make youth more likely to be engaged and attentive because someone who looks like, talks like, and fully understands them will be comforting. Hosting educational programs also establishes your center/service as a resource that youth can have access to. In addition to providing education, having resources for youth such as STI screening has been proven to reduce STI rates.  

STI screening is a critical component to stopping the spread of STIs amongst adolescents. However, there are many barriers that prevent young people from getting tested such as transportation, confidentiality concerns, fear of being judged, and unfamiliarity with healthcare in general. Providing STI screenings on campus, or even sharing resources for students to get tested, normalizes and reduces stigma surrounding sexual health. Schools that provide STI screening and treatment reduce many of these barriers. A study on repeated STI screening and treatment in a school setting found that school-based screening reduced the prevalence of chlamydia among boys. Based on the study, “expansion of STD screening and treatment programs to school settings is likely to be a critical component of a national strategy to control bacterial STDs.” (Farley, n.d.) While providing testing is beneficial, students won’t show up unless they feel comfortable enough to do so. Knowing how to create a safe space that is inclusive can be a determining factor in a student’s decision to get tested.  

Creating a safe space includes representation and respect. Your students will vary in background, race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. It will be beneficial to hire staff that reflect the diversity of your student population. Students that belong to underserved groups/groups that have been historically mistreated would feel more comfortable seeing representation. The clinic environment and interactions between students and staff/service providers is important to establishing a trusting relationship. Students, just like any other individual, deserve to be treated with respect regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, or age. Include ethnocentric decorations, LGBTQ flags or decorations, diversity in your mission statement, and create brochures in multiple languages based on your student population. 

Schools are critical to nurturing the health and wellbeing of youth. The rising STI rates call for the prioritization of adolescents’ reproductive health education and access to resources. Schools can be a huge asset to reducing these rates and helping youth get the care they need. By implementing strategies to be an inclusive resource for youth, we can take a step in the positive direction to combat the STI epidemic.