June 6, 2003
As teens scramble to find the perfect dress or tuxedo in the feverish days leading up to prom night, public health nurses are steeling themselves for their busiest time of year and stocking up on condoms. "This is our big time to try and keep kids safe, not just from a sexual health standpoint, but drinking, driving, all the other issues that come into play this time of year in a big way," said public health nurse Janice Benson.
Benson is one of five full-time nurses who run Ottawa's Healthy Sexuality and Risk Reduction Program at six sites in city high schools and community centers. Offering services to suburban and rural youth that are accessible and "in your face," the satellite clinic program has run in some schools for at least 11 years. "What we realized with the city being so large and widespread is youth who couldn't get downtown were missing out," said Benson.
Clinic nurses test for and treat STDs; test for pregnancy, HIV and hepatitis; offer free condoms; and answer questions on sexuality and teen health. The clinics do not require advance appointments, and teens do not have to be students at the school to receive assistance. The program helps to prevent the "fallout" of prom and grad trips, according to the nurses. "I think it has really provided them with accurate information so that they can make those informed choices," said clinic nurse Jill Behn.
Benson said that since becoming a health nurse in Ottawa over a decade ago, she has seen the teens' sexual knowledge grow, but also she has seen the age of first sexual encounters drop. "Whereas maybe years ago I would have seen more 17-year-olds coming in being sexually active for the first time, now perhaps it's more 15 and 16 years old," said Benson. What has not changed is that young men are still less proactive than girls when it comes to sexual health -- more than 95 percent of the clinic's patients are female.