Child and adolescent sexual health and well-being is multifaceted and includes many risk factors that make this group vulnerable. Populations which are impacted by various characteristics or circumstances that create barriers to healthcare and constitute a potential threat to health are vulnerable. Thus, by their nature and stage of development, youth are a vulnerable population susceptible to health (and mental health) issues. Providing youth with comprehensive sexuality education is one protective factor to help promote the sexual health and well-being among this group.
Professionals who can provide comprehensive sexuality education include mental health and healthcare providers, such as primary care physicians, Obstetrician–Gynecologist, and nurses. However, mental health providers experience barriers in providing CSE services to youth.
The Gap in Mental Health Services
While mental health providers are qualified to provide counseling, education, and resources for comprehensive sexuality education, there are barriers in youth accessing mental health providers for CSE. These barriers do not focus merely on CSE supports, but with accessing mental health services in general.
Whitney & Peterson (2019) found that 1 in 7 children have a at least one treatable mental health condition, but only 50% of those in need access services. Barriers to youth accessing mental health services include lack of access to services, fearful of getting services , limited mental health knowledge and broader perceptions of help-seeking , social stigma/embarrassment , lack of trust of confidentiality , and barriers with financial costs and logistical barriers. Barriers for treatment do not exist solely with the youth. Systemic barriers also impact the youth accessing services, particularly on the part of the Caregiver. As with other mental health-related issues, Caregivers may not want to acknowledge CSE is needed and/or may also experience stigma associated with going to a mental health provider for services. Thus, while mental health professionals are qualified to provide CSE, just as with mental health services in general, relying only on these providers to disseminate CSE will leave a large gap in services for this population.
Health Care Providers as the Most Trusted Resource for CSE
A solution to fill this gap in mental health services are utilizing the expertise of health care providers, who are the most trusted resource for CSE. It is common for healthcare providers to be responsible for providing mental health services. In fact, researchers found that PCPs identified providing mental health services to one-third of their clients. Additionally, for many clients, talking with a health care provider may be seen as a first step in getting supports.
Health care providers are a viable option for providing CSE. They can address the location-based barriers that mental health providers face by seeing clients in schools and in community setting. Health care providers also have the advantage of being able to provide services to clients living in rural communities. Furthermore, stigma associated barriers on the part of the client or Caregiver related to accessing mental health providers for “mental-health related issues” are alleviated by seeing a “medical professional.” Many health care providers may also have advantage of engaging the youth in CSE conversations as providers may have a long history of treating the youth since early childhood, therefore conversations around CSE topics can naturally be integrated into patient visits. Thus, as health care providers are the most trusted resource for clients (and Caregivers), they are in the unique position to provide CSE in the context of health care services.