Academic journal article Human Ecology

Experts Help New York Improve Teen Sexual Health: ACT for Youth's Center of Excellence in the College of Human Ecology Uses the Principles of Positive Youth Development to Tackle Teen Pregnancy, HIV Infection, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Substance Use, and Violence

Academic journal article Human Ecology

Experts Help New York Improve Teen Sexual Health: ACT for Youth's Center of Excellence in the College of Human Ecology Uses the Principles of Positive Youth Development to Tackle Teen Pregnancy, HIV Infection, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Substance Use, and Violence

Article excerpt

On February 5, 2009, Jane Powers, PhD '85, received a text message on her cell phone.

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"I just want to thank you so much for caring for people like me, and listening to us. Yesterday was an amazing experience that I will never forget; it is in my heart."

The message was from Rose, a 20-year-old who had the previous day participated in the Adolescent Sexual Health Symposium in New York City alongside 11 nationally known experts. As director of the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence in the College of Human Ecology--which had convened the symposium for the New York State Department of Health--it was important to Powers that Rose felt good about her contribution and that the young woman believed her voice mattered. But even more important was that the policy makers had heard Rose, too.

The two-day symposium had been convened by the center to assist the health department in answering two questions: Are we doing the best we can for young people in the state? What might we do better?

Thinking about these questions is essential at a time when African Americans account for nearly 70 percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is up among adolescents, and teen pregnancy rates are racially and ethnically disparate, according to Kristine Mesler, the health department's associate bureau director of child and adolescent health.

"We wanted an opportunity to look at what the current research is on the topic and to ask the experts in the field to help guide the department in establishing priorities, policies, and initiatives for the next decade," she said.

As a result, Mesler and fellow health department colleague Tom Tallon, associate director of the Division of HIV Prevention, asked the center to organize the symposium for a by-invitation-only group of 100 members of the health department and long-time youth workers from agencies statewide.

In preparation for the symposium, the center used its national contacts to find the most knowledgeable academics and experts from the field on topics including trends in adolescent sexual behavior; disparities in access to adolescent sexual health services, information and education; how environments and relationships impact adolescent sexual health; and the impact of new information and communication technologies.

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But the work didn't stop there. In anticipation of the symposium, staff members asked young people to participate in the fall of 2008 by sharing their knowledge, experience, and opinions on how they get information about sexual health; where they go for sexual health services; what their experiences have been; and needs they have that aren't being met. Nearly 300 teens--among them urban and rural adolescents who are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, homeless, well-housed, and who are HIV positive--participated in 27 focus groups conducted by the center research team. A preliminary written report of the interviews was presented at the symposium. To even further advance the youth voice, a five-member youth panel--Rose among them--offered their insights at the event itself.

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"The Department of Health can rely on information that comes through us because everything we disseminate to the field is based on research and best practices," said Powers. "And more than that, it's also informed by practitioners in the communities we work with and also by the young people we've gotten to know across the state."

The central role of information technologies in supporting young people's sexual health particularly stood out in the symposium discussions. Deb Levine '85, the executive director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, described how technology could be used to promote sexual health. One example she gave was of a text-messaging service that answers questions such as what to do if a condom breaks, providing information about the possible consequences along with contact numbers for local clinics. …

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