School-based clinics, such as my host site, Erie Family Health Centers at Clemente High School, play an important role in empowering students to take control over their own health. Especially for services related to sexual and reproductive health, individuals over the age of 12 in Illinois can legally receive birth control and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on their own, without parental consent or notification.
Recently, the Chicago Healthy Adolescents and Teens (CHAT) program, made possible through partnerships with the Chicago Department of Public Health, Planned Parenthood of Illinois, and Chicago Public Schools, was implemented at Clemente High School, with the collaboration of Erie. This program provides free, confidential testing and treatment for chlamydia and gonorrhea, as well as resources and one-on-one sessions with a medical provider. With Cook County having the second highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the nation, the CHAT program provides important services that students may otherwise not access.
Through this process, I, along with the help of the Erie Clemente staff, consented nearly the entire student population to the Erie clinic for confidential services—including STI testing, birth control, and behavioral health services—which they can now receive at any time during their high school education. As I reached out to students, I encountered many who previously did not know about the clinic or about the health services they could receive there, particularly the confidential ones. I was also able to inform teachers about the clinic as a comprehensive primary care resource for the students, not just as a place to receive band-aids.
Before and after testing, the other Erie school-based health educators and I also educated students on contraceptives and the importance of STI testing as a routine health check-up to de-stigmatize the notion of having an STI and getting tested. There are many barriers that adolescents may face when it comes to sexual and reproductive health, largely due to the stigma surrounding STIs (with having an STI often being associated with being “dirty”), and not being comfortable or having the resources and knowledge to navigate the healthcare system and understand their health rights. By offering all students the opportunity to get tested, we were able to circumvent some of these barriers, especially as testing occurred during school and with support from the school staff and administration.
Adolescents are in a gray area of life, when they are beginning to gain more independence from family but are still not wholly independent, and they should be empowered to know the rights that they have and to make decisions for themselves regarding their health. Sexual and reproductive health is important for a healthy life, and getting tested is simply a way to check in with the body, much like an annual physical; it is through education and awareness that we can begin to have more open conversations and break down barriers around it. After all, why should we talk any differently about chlamydia and gonorrhea than we do about the flu?
This blog post was written by NHC Chicago 2019-20 member Cynthia Wu.
Cynthia is a Health Educator at Erie Family Health Center - Clemente.