Sex can be hard for adolescents to talk about, but can support groups help?

Sex can be hard for adolescents to talk about: written on the back of the school toilet door, exposed via diagrams in science class, squirmed through while watching TV as a family, whispered about in the waiting room of a sexual health clinic or overheard from a seemingly knowing elder sibling.

Young people want more than this. They recognise with precocious insight that sex in today’s world encompasses more than just a physical act.

The brief from our Practice Champions was to help create a group for young people, particularly girls, where they felt safe and comfortable to talk about sex. They have a lot to say! They want to talk about attitudes towards the opposite sex, healthy relationships, the un-reality of pornography, body image and the way we dress, about how sex relates to personal safety and consent as well as the role models society presents to young people. They want to be able to get free contraception away from the stigma of a white-walled clinic and to express their ideas in confidence outside the school gates.

After some deliberation the group was called BIRCHA (Body Image, Relationships, Contraception and Health for Adolescents). The girls printed posters which they planned to display around their school including in the counsellor’s office.

Our project was supported by Katie Malbon, a St Mary’s Paediatric Consultant who is passionate about Adolescent wellbeing. We enlisted the talents of Sion Davies, a Youth Worker from EPIC CIC, who has developed his own Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) programme.  Sion generously agreed to attend the first meeting to establish how the Practice Champions wanted him to be involved.

We found a discreet but accessible venue near the Practice Champions’ school and booked a monthly after-school slot. We received a generous supply of condoms from our colleagues at the Jefferiss Wing for Sexual Health. As the date of the first meeting neared we obsessed over what sandwiches we could provide, how many people might come, how we would arrange the tables…

On the day our grand total attendance was... ZERO!

I won’t deny that we felt deflated as we sat and polished off the refreshments as one by one our group members bailed by WhatsApp. Katie and Sion reassured us that this kind of faltering start is quite common when collaborating with young people. As it turned out the first date fell just around the date of everyone’s exams, and no one had thought of this… With hindsight, the hospital health team’s fervent enthusiasm probably left the Practice Champions feeling disconnected. We agreed that we need to let them take more of a lead.

On a positive note, as a result of the planning we undertook, we have developed a significantly greater awareness of the network of support services available to young people locally. We have also built relationships between EPIC and our Adolescent Consultants who are developing a holistic adolescent service in the hospital. Watch this space for the next BIRCHA meeting!