News

Stress increases risky sexual behavior in adolescents, study finds

By Charmaine Jackson
Contributing Writer

The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES) of New Orleans presented BY! NOLA! (Believe in Youth, New Orleans, LA) Leadership Summit on Adolescent Health, to reveal the findings from its newest survey, on November 18, at the Loews Hotel in New Orleans.

According to Dr. Denese Shervington, founder and president of IWES, New Orleans became a central focus after Hurricane Katrina due to local experts’ predictions that the “mental health crisis” experienced by survivors of the disaster, could have implications for the health and well-being of community members for years to come. As a board-certified psychiatrist and public health leader, with a specialty in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Dr. Shervington was aware of the long-term consequences and traumatic impact on the vulnerable populations, such as children.

The survey, titled “What Puts Youth At Risk?” revealed post-Katrina stress, neighborhood crime and domestic violence can influence sexual behavior among adolescents. A total of 527 adolescents participated in the survey from August 2013 through August 2014 and were interviewed in person for signs of emotional stress and trauma. The results indicated 70 percent of participants reported feeling stressed; 49 percent indicated over the last year they worried that they might get shot, stabbed, beaten, or murdered; 39 percent revealed witnessing domestic violence; 48 percent indicated over the last year have experienced murder, while 15.6 percent have witnessed murder.

Through the BY! NOLA! Parent/Caregiver Comprehensive Sexuality Education Survey, data was collected from 158 parents. Based on that survey, 92 percent of parents believe stress influences risky sexual behavior in adolescents. Additionally, experts and researchers have also found that individuals experiencing high stress levels have decreased decision making ability and may engage in more risky behaviors. Because Louisiana state law prohibits anyone from asking young students about their sexual behavior, the staff was unable to ask those types of questions, so they based their findings on risky behavior, by analyzing cumulative data on rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

In order to reach adolescents, the BY! NOLA! program has been implemented in 19 schools, two churches, and nine community based organizations. Dr. Shervington, credits the methodology used by staff to conduct the surveys. “While we understand that BY! NOLA! is intended to be a teen pregnancy prevention program, IWES’s holistic approach in working with youth, including one-on-one conversations, allowed participants to relay their experiences and fears,” stated Shervington.

Since Hurricane Katrina, reports have reflected the struggle of rebuilding healthy communities, especially in the arena of sexual health through statistical revelations. Reports reveal inequity in terms of sexual health, in Orleans Parish and state-wide.

• According to Kids Count Data, Louisiana ranks 47th out of the 50 states for child well-being.

• Louisiana ranks 2nd in the nation for gonorrhea infections and 4th in the nation in chlamydia infections (Orleans Parish has the highest in the state)

• According to the Office of Public Health, young people ages 13-24 accounted for 73 percent of the total chlamydia infections and 69 percent of the total gonorrhea infections reported

• Louisiana has the 5th highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation among youth age 15-19

• According to CDC data from 2011, the state of Louisiana ranked 3rd in the nation for new HIV diagnoses; Baton Rouge and New Orleans ranked second and third in HIV infection rates, among major metropolitan areas.

The panelists shared thoughts about risky sexual behaviors patterns with regards to stress, especially in the African-American community. Physician, Dr. Corey Hebert, said the link between stress and sexual risky behaviors “is a physiological phenomenon” and referenced a 2014 study, which proved increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, increases sexual activity in people that experience stress.

Psychiatrist, Dr. Kimberly Gordon, says adolescents are not educated enough about health education, including sex education.

“Teachers and administrators are ill equipped to discuss sex health and because of this, students generally are given information about safe sex practices after they present with STDs or express concerns with potentially pregnancy. Some parents and school administrators are against sexual education due to misguided beliefs that this will increase or encourage sexual activity among adolescents,” Gordon said.

In addition to a lack of education, Dr. Gordon calls the act of adolescents engaging in risky sexual activity, a “manifestation of a bigger problem,” and believes there is a lack of dialogue about sex in the African-American community.

“African American culture is heavily influenced by the religious sectors, particularly Christian values of morality. It is often not discussed in church arenas because of fear of moral judgments. Black people haven’t figured out that intimacy isn’t something to be ashamed about,” Gordon added.

Lack of access and funding for health-based institutions is also a problem. Since the closure of the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital in 2009, a new facility has yet to reopen. In the meeting, it was reported that funding for programs like BY! NOLA! very limited.

Dr. Gordon stressed that young people must learn to manage stress and suggested techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, or even joining organizations, that promote social connectedness and team building.

“It’s important to understand that young people who grew up in the post-Katrina era are still experiencing individual and community level trauma, Dr. Shervington stated. “Programs like BY!NOLA! that address and build emotional resilience can help adolescents make better choices and form healthy relationships,” she added.

This article originally published in the November 24, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.