What does good, non-stigmatized sexual healthcare look like for northern and indigenous youth? This question has become very important to me.
I have had the great privilege of discussing this question at length with youth across the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut as a program facilitator for FOXY (Fostering Open eXpression among Youth), an arts based sexual health program that was awarded the 2014 Arctic Inspiration Prize and has taken the north by storm with its revolutionary approach to talking with youth about sexual health, sexuality, and relationships.
The following eight answers are woven from an amalgamation of candid, opened, group discussions with northern and indigenous teens.
Tell them you’re glad they are there
One of the most powerful things you can do to encourage youth to access healthcare, to ensure a positive experience, and to help them spread the word to others, is to welcome them and congratulate them on taking steps to care for themselves. For many, and especially for youth, feeling unwelcomed, or even being treated with neutrality, can be detrimentally off-putting. A warm welcome and a high five for being there really goes a long way.
When you live in a small town, it can help a lot to be assured that your relationship with your healthcare provider is confidential. Of course, be honest about any restrictions that apply, especially when caring for youth, but confidentiality is so important when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and reminding people that their information is safe is an excellent step to a successful visit.
In the north, healthcare is not always accessible, so you need to be as accessible as possible. This may be the first time, or the first time in a long time that someone has chosen to or been able to access your services – be thorough.
The number one beef teens have with healthcare providers is that they don’t listen! Whether we don’t think they can understand, or just think they don’t know how to make good decisions, not listening to them is a sure way to shut them down and put up a barrier that will be more difficult to overcome the next time they need to access the healthcare system. After all, they are the experts on themselves and I promise we are much more likely to underestimate them than we are to overestimate them.
Honour language barriers
Recognizing that many northern indigenous youth do not speak English as a first language is important. It is equally as important to balance that knowledge with the reminder that having English as a second language does not denote intelligence or ability to comprehend a concept. People can understand if you can put things the right way.
Don’t assume gender or sexuality
Heteronormativity is a major deterrent for our LGBTQ2+ youth in accessing healthcare. By not assuming a patient’s gender or sexuality you are helping to overcome stigmatization and ultimately provide superior, more thorough care.
Be trauma and violence informed
There is a push in medical circles in Canada right now to become more trauma and violence informed. This can help to provide very crucial services to a wide demographic in a way that will maximize receptiveness and efficacy. There is much that can be done in recognizing violence and trauma and knowing how to shape medical visits when you are working with a patient who is dealing with such experiences.
Set them up for next time
You don’t know who will be providing their care next visit. Remind them not to give up if their next experience is less than ideal and that a second opinion is available, and a responsible option if they don’t feel they receive the care they need.
We all contribute to the legacy of our time, and I do hope that we are moving towards better services for all, including our northern and indigenous youth residing in small, outlying communities. These eight steps can take practice to become second nature, but are worth the extra effort. When we remind them that they are worth it, they remind us right back.