Despite ongoing public health efforts and the fact that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are preventable and treatable, new infections continue to occur and, in fact, are on the rise. Between 2010 and 2015, there was an 85.6% increase in the reported rate of syphilis, a 65.4% increase in the reported rate of gonorrhea and a 16.7% increase in the reported rate of chlamydia.
Despite ongoing public education efforts to address perceptions associated with STIs, stigma persists. Stigma can lead to negative mental health outcomes, feelings of shame, isolation and negative self-image. These feelings may also act as barriers that prevent people from getting tested or accessing the care, treatment and support they need.
People who have an STI may experience or perceive stigma, particularly in health care settings. It is important that we, as health professionals, be aware of and avoid potential sources of stigma. Keep the following in mind:
- Consider your biases: Reflect on your personal attitudes and beliefs. Don’t make assumptions about your patient’s gender, sexual orientation or sexuality.
- Educate yourself on how to talk about sexual health: Be conscious of your language. Create open and respectful dialogues with your patients when talking about sexual health and demonstrate an understanding of their diverse needs.
- Show compassion: Burnout and compassion fatigue are real concerns among health professionals who see patient after patient and may begin to focus on the illness ahead of the person. The simple act of displaying empathy for those struggling with an STI can go a long way in making patients feel valued and respected.
Sexual health is integral to our overall health and well-being. During Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Week, I encourage you to think about actions you can take to help reduce stigma and support positive sexual health for all Canadians.