Hidden in the depths of the sprawling Macon-Bibb County Health Department building on Emery Highway, a red awning and colorful signs usher adolescent visitors into a clinic just for teens.
The Teen Health Center opened in late 2016 to provide free health services for 11- to 19-year-olds in a private setting. Hundreds of teens have already passed through its doors.
“It’s free. It’s confidential,” said Alicia Wright, teen health educator at the Macon-Bibb County Health Department. “And we’re here to provide you with whatever assistance you need.”
Wright counsels teens on topics they might not want to talk to their parents about, like dating, bullying and stress management. She also monitors an anonymous text line teens can message if they can’t make it to the health department for a visit.
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Most adolescents visit the center for birth control consultations and sexually transmitted disease testing, said Megan Chapman, maternal child health coordinator for the North Central Health District. Visits are confidential, so teens don’t have to worry about their parents finding out.
Adolescents who participated in focus groups before the Teen Health Center opened stressed the importance of privacy, Chapman said. They didn’t want to risk running into their parents or other adults they knew in the health department’s main waiting room.
Instead, teen visitors ring a doorbell to enter their own waiting area, filled with colorful paintings, pamphlets and cushy red chairs. A bin stocked with condoms hangs from the wall.
“This is a judge-free zone,” said Brittany Stewart, adolescent health and youth development coordinator for the district. “Our main goal is to service teens the best way we possibly can.”
‘We had to come up with a solution’
Bibb County has exceeded the Georgia average in both teen STD and teen pregnancy rates for years.
The county reported 3,006 new STD cases per 100,000 10- to 19-year-olds in 2016, the year the Teen Health Center opened. Statewide, only 1,532.1 new cases were reported for every 100,000 residents in that age group, according to state data.
The county’s teen pregnancy rate is 20 pregnancies for every 100,000 10- to 19-year-old girls, compared to a statewide average of about 15 for every 100,000 girls, state data shows. The county rate was even higher in 2016, with more than 23 pregnancies per 100,000 girls.
“We had to come up with a solution for that,” Chapman said.
For advice, Chapman and her colleagues turned to Athens-Clarke County, which had already opened its own teen health center a few years before. The Northeast Health District now operates five Teen Matters clinics throughout its service area.
Teen pregnancy rates in the region have since decreased dramatically, said Whitney Howell, a nurse at the Teen Matters center in Athens.
Like the Teen Health Center in Macon, the Athens clinic offers a range of services beyond safe sex counseling. What sets such centers apart, Howell said, is the space they offer for adolescents to speak one-on-one with a health care provider.
Howell has built close relationships with her patients in her three-and-a-half years at the Teen Matters clinic. Many say they’d rather speak with her than with their primary care provider.
“You really see that light bulb going off when you provide education and counseling about their body, about birth control, about, you know, providing those HPV (Human Papillomavirus) shots that prevent cervical cancer,” she said.
When Howell earns her young patients’ trust, they keep coming back.
“It’s just an excellent resource for teens in the community to be able to access birth control, to prevent unwanted teen pregnancy, to reduce, you know, STD rates, increase health care knowledge within the community,” she said. “I love these clinics.”
Other similar centers have started to emerge across the country in recent years. Some are based at health departments, like in Macon, while others are affiliated with schools, hospitals and community health clinics.
Teen health centers that provide primary care rely more on parental involvement, because those services require parent consent. But at the Macon clinic, the main focus is patient confidentiality.
Georgia teens can consent to their own care without parents’ input except for some primary care and mental health services, Chapman said. State law ensures health department officials won’t inform guardians or other adults that a teen has visited the center unless he or she gives written permission.
Teen Health Center staff always encourage patients to include their parents in decisions about safe sex, Chapman said, but staffers also like to talk to teens one-on-one about their options.
Visitors are often surprised when they realize how important confidentiality is to the staff, Chapman said.
“It is what we say it is,” she said. “When you come here, we won’t tell your mom. Everything will be free. We’ll keep it, you know, confidential. Our conversations will be safe. They’ll be private.”
The promise of confidentiality gets visitors in the door, Chapman said. Once they ring the doorbell, she said, health department staff have the chance to impart wisdom the teens might not get otherwise.
“Teens have a lot of questions,” and few reliable sources to turn to for advice, Chapman said.
“I like to be that person, because we know it’s accurate information, not something that they just found on Google or something from a friend,” she said.
Patients aren’t always looking for guidance, though, Wright said.
“Sometimes teens do not want your opinion,” she said. “They pretty much want you to listen.”
If patients ask for her opinion, Wright will chime in. She also connects her clients with resources outside of the health department.
“As teens, you don’t always know where to go in the community to get help,” Chapman said. “And you might not have a support system to guide you. So, for us to be that, I think, is important.”
The key, she said, is to offer help without judgment.
When visitors have a good experience at the Teen Health Center, Chapman said, they tell their friends. Now more than two years into the experiment, she hopes the word keeps spreading.
“When teens come in, we can service them pretty comprehensively,” Chapman said. “And I think we just want to get that word out.”
For more information about the Teen Health Center, visit http://teenhealthmacon.com/
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.