Health class in high school wasn't the most pleasant of times. It included routinely embarrassing moments, like practicing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, naming male and female anatomy and repeatedly going over detailed descriptions of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This was in addition to the even more embarrassing talks with my mother about sex and responsible behavior. According to the dictionary on my shelf, embarrass means “to cause someone to feel awkward or self-conscious.” Welcome to the motto of my adolescent life.
But to my surprise, despite more initial embarrassment than I thought I could bear, after a few classes and talks, what once made me feel totally awkward and self-conscious started giving me a sense of acknowledgment and self-awareness. It is this self-awareness and understanding that Plain Talk (or Hablando Claro)—a new teen pregnancy prevention program in the South Valley—is promoting. New Mexico is one of two states in the country selected to participate in the $240,000 three-year program.
The numbers are staggering: Approximately 45 percent of all pregnancies in New Mexico are unintended, and about one half of women with unintended pregnancies weren't using contraception when they conceived. Nearly 80 percent of unintended pregnancies occur among young women ages 15-17, and New Mexico's teen birth rate currently ranks third in the nation, with one out of six pregnant New Mexico women being a pregnant teen.
Recent national reports state that teen pregnancy rates have declined over the last decade. But across class and ethnic groups, they've remained just as high as before. In fact, Hispanic teens are three times more likely to get pregnant than Caucasian teens. And even while, overall, pregnancy rates are dropping, STD rates are steadily on the rise across the board. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, current teen birth rates and sexually transmitted disease rates in the South Valley zip codes of 87105, 87121 and 87102 are among the highest in Bernalillo County. In those zip codes, one in 10 teen girls has a baby per year, which is a teen birth rate of 96.1 per 1,000 teens. This compares with the statewide rate of 62 per 1,000, and the national rate of 52 per year.
Factors contributing to health disparities include: poverty associated with poor health because of less access to healthcare; lower quality housing and environmental conditions; and limited economic, educational and social opportunities. According to a Plain Talk planning presentation, 18.9 percent of families that make less than $20,000 a year are more likely to have poor health, compared to 10.6 percent of families earning between $20,000 and $34,000 a year, and just over 6 percent earning $35,000 and more.
Plain Talk helps community members educate each other on ways to communicate with young people about sex, with the goal of delaying sexual activity. The program was launched in five racially diverse, low-income communities in Atlanta, Hartford, New Orleans, San Diego and Seattle over four years. The results are impressive. The number of sexually experienced youth who reported pregnancy was reduced by 11 percent, and the proportion of sexually experienced youth who spoke with adults about topics related to sexuality (compared with youth who did not talk to adults) were half as likely to have an STD, have had or created a pregnancy, or to have a child.
According to Program Sponsor Debra Delgado of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in order to ease these social problems, we need to begin thinking about family context, and not just teen behavior. We know that families living in poverty try to find proactive family coping strategies such as connections between families, like creating social networks, and connections within families, such as parent/child communication. This is what made the difference between high and low rates of teen pregnancy within poor Latino communities. Delayed sexual activity is strongly correlated with connectedness—or positive relationships with adults—and parents' ability to talk about their values.
Until recently, our teens' health classes included an abstinence-only curriculum which completely omitted important information about sexual health and contraceptives, and reported incorrect facts and figures. Fortunately, here in New Mexico our DOH has limited the abstinence-only programs to sixth grade and below, taking them out of middle and high schools. A balanced approach should include comprehensive sex education at school and innovative neighborhood-based programs that are proven to reduce teen pregnancy, such as the Plain Talk initiative. We should commend the DOH for signing onto the collaboration and pay attention to the evaluation results after the three years is up. Comprehensive sex education is necessary, even if it does cause the occasional blushing.