How to encourage better sexual health at university

Alex Townsend

Public Health England launched a ‘Protect Against STIs’ campaign last week, to encourage condom use and reduce spread of STIs amongst young people.

The campaign reveals that an STI diagnosed in a young person every four minutes in England.

In 2017, there were over 144,000 diagnoses of chlamydia or gonorrhoea in England in 15 to 24 year olds. That’s 58% of total diagnoses.

Rates of STI diagnoses have remained consistently high over past decade and worryingly, there have been recent increases in certain STIs like gonorrhoea.

PHE’s campaign highlights the increased likelihood of contracting a life changing STI if people have sex without a condom. The impact of having an STI is significant, particularly if left untreated as they can cause major health issues, including pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, swollen or painful testicles or reactive arthritis. In pregnant women STIs can lead to higher risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.

Dr Hamish Mohammed, Consultant STI Scientist at Public Health England, said:

“Young people are more likely to be diagnosed with an STI than people aged 25 and older. STIs present a real threat to young people, and without using condoms, young people are putting themselves and their partners at risk of getting an STI.”

Alarmingly, The Student Room ran a survey this year and a whopping 58% of sexually-active students said they have never been tested for STIs.

66% of students have had unprotected sex and 56% of students are embarrassed about buying condoms. 19% of respondents also claimed they were unsure of where to access contraception.

The majority of STIs, like chlamydia, are symptomless and gonorrhoea is becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics and at risk of becoming untreatable in the future. PHE’s campaign therefore encourages condom use, as prevention is better than cure.

So how can we change students’ attitudes to condoms?

At Unihealth we have over 15 years of behaviour change experience, and in a previous blog we explored how understanding behaviour is the first crucial step to changing it.

We need to understand – what stops students from buying/using condoms?

If it’s concerns about money, information on free condoms needs to be widely available.

If it's embarrassment, the following could make a big difference:

  • Normalising. Reminding students that over half (53%) of sexually active young people DID use a condom during a first sexual encounter with someone (YouGov/PHE 2017)
  • Nudging. Regularly reminding students how important it is and how to obtain condoms.
  • Empowering. Working to reduce stigma. Helping students to confidently take charge of their personal health and to have the confidence to ask a partner to use a condom.
  • Making change easy. For example, issue free condoms around campus.

TV personality Sam Thompson (Made In Chelsea) is the celebrity face of PHE’s campaign, appearing in two videos chatting to students. In the first video he joins Dr Sara Kayat at a Further Education College to quiz students on their general sexual health knowledge.

In a second video he teams with Dr Joe Peterson Camp in Warwick chat to students about their experiences and attitudes towards condoms.

We think these videos are powerful as they tick many of the behaviour change boxes above.

At Unihealth we are working with universities to deliver supportive content to students on sexual health and many other issues. To find out more about our programme and how we can help encourage students to use condoms and adopt healthy behaviours, get in touch with us at: [email protected].