Bright Idea: Three Ways to Help Young People Cope With STI Tests

Photograph of a physician smiling.

According to the CDC, half of all new sexually transmitted infections happen among 15- to 24-year-olds. It follows that encouraging young people to get tested is important for their ongoing wellbeing and sexual health.

Sounds simple, right? But in the real world, it may be incredibly difficult to get young people to get tested. Limited transportation and busy schedules may keep young people from going to testing sites. Teens and young adults may not understand the importance of getting tested or what testing entails. And they may feel overwhelmed by the very idea of testing and, especially, the prospect of testing positive. In particular, young people who’ve experienced relationship abuse or sexual violence may be dealing with a lot and find testing tough to face.

We wanted advice on how youth and family services professionals can not only get young people tested but also support them through the process. So we talked to Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Dating Abuse Helpline, and Melissa Sellevaag, director of clinical services at Metro TeenAIDS in Washington, DC. Here are their tips:

1. Make it easy—and free or low-cost. Either bring the testing to young people, or bring young people to the testing, Ray-Jones says.

For example, she says a shelter in Austin has a physician come once a week to offer health care and exams on site. Another shelter has someone on staff drive a van to the local clinic twice a week.

Many local community clinics offer free or reduced price physical exams, including the opportunity to get tested. If a patient tests positive for an STI the clinic can help get them reduced cost treatments or prescriptions, as well as needed emotional support.

2. Offer counseling to every young person with a positive result. If a young person tests positive for an STI, Ray-Jones recommends helping her to get counseling. A young person may not show feelings of grief and betrayal when diagnosed with an STI, but she is likely to have them.  If your program doesn’t have a therapist on staff, try to help young people find a local support group or counseling at the clinic where testing took place. Counseling can include conversations about safer sex. It can also help young people learn how to take medicine appropriately.

3. Follow up about the health care the young person needs. Ray-Jones notes that young people who’ve just tested positive for an STI may feel overwhelmed or ashamed. They might not be thinking first and foremost about keeping appointments. So remind them. Remind them also to call doctors about their test results, especially if there isn’t a good place where the doctor can contact them. Asking for test results is intimidating, so being matter-of-fact about it can be helpful.

Sellevaag says, “We accompany them to their first appointment and then enroll them in our case management program until we know for sure that they are retained in medical care which is usually at minimum a year-long process.”

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