At 17 years old, Mia was studying for her VCE, she was school captain and Dux the year before. Then she found out she was six months pregnant, and suddenly her life growing up in the Southern Mallee region was changed.
Navigating a whole new world of sexual health services, Mia found they weren’t equipped to deal with young people’s experiences. Now she’s working on "Sexy and Safe: Let's Talk About It" to improve access and education for other young people in these communities.
In 2013, Mia visited her family doctor in Swan Hill to discuss alternatives to the contraceptive pill, which had been making her sick. She was likely early stages pregnant at the time, and yet it went undetected. “I was just sent away with brochures… I didn’t feel very comfortable.” Mia feels this was the first failing of the system. “It could’ve been detected and I would’ve been able to deal with my situation how I wanted to.”
Mia and her partner were still getting used to the idea of being young parents when they travelled to Melbourne with their parents to discuss their options. Learning it was too late in her pregnancy to access a termination, they returned to Swan Hill eager to have another chance to see their baby. Despite having a referral from a local doctor to permit this, Mia says, “The radiologist informed me that they wouldn’t be doing my ultrasound because I'd had one a couple of weeks earlier and they wouldn't just be giving out ultrasounds whenever ‘mum’ feels like it.”
When it came time for her baby’s birth, Mia says it was a traumatic experience that’s taken her over four years to properly come to terms with. “They didn’t even get a proper assessment of me to find out that my baby was posterior so there was actually no way that she was going to come out. There were two occasions where I had to push for two hours straight and I just kept telling them, ‘I can’t do this.’ They weren’t listening to me. I felt dismissed, like I was just being over dramatic.”
After a forceps intervention, Mia had a fourth-degree tear, began hemorrhaging and was rushed to surgery. Her long, painful recovery and struggles learning the ropes as a new mum at 17 were made all the more difficult by unsupportive medical staff who she felt on many occasions were judgemental and unsympathetic of her and her situation.
“It’s not nice to be let down by medical staff because you trust your life with them. You think if you can trust anyone you can trust them so when you feel like you can’t, it leaves you very unresolved and unsure about yourself.”
Sadly, Mia is not alone. Many young people in regional areas face unique challenges and barriers to accessing sexual health services. That’s why this year, Mia joined the Sexy and Safe project to help conduct a series of consultations and better understand the needs of young people in the Mallee region.
Sexy and Safe is an initiative of the Mallee Child Youth Area Youth Partnership with support from CERSH and Women’s Health Loddon Mallee, and presented in partnership with Youth Affairs Council Victoria. The findings from these youth consultations will help inform the development of initiatives that focus on strengthening sexual and reproductive health outcomes for young people.
Mia says a lot of young people that she spoke with disclosed that they’d had similar experiences to her. “I had so much family support but I understand that’s not the case for a lot of young people. I just can't imagine how others are treated when they go in pregnant at 15 or 16, and from a hard home situation...it really breaks my heart.”
On top of the need to travel long distances to access services in regional areas, Mia says there’s a general lack of knowledge about sexual health and reproduction, and about the services they can access, even before being in a pregnancy situation. And, even if they wanted to access them, living in small communities makes anonymity more challenging. “The look on some young people’s faces when they realised they’d be met with people they knew everywhere they went, like at the medical clinic, at the chemist…”
“It’s not nice to be let down by medical staff because you trust your life with them. You think if you can trust anyone you can trust them so when you feel like you can’t, it leaves you very unresolved and unsure about yourself.”–Mia
Mia says young people wished they knew more about reproductive health. “They understand and see the importance of learning about STIs, about termination, about the kinds of services they can access in their town, and they’re not really learning that in school.” Although, she says they weren’t necessarily keen on learning this from their teachers. “They were all very open about wanting to have external people come in and teach them.”
For Mia, better education is the solution. “It all comes back to this. The schools need a more dynamic way of speaking with young people about sexual and reproductive health, and to teach it in a way that’s not shameful. They really need to find a way to introduce young people to the services, like small tours, so that they get familiar with going through the door. And meeting the professionals… you’d hope some rapport would start and perhaps the judgement and stigma would go. It would be a lot easier for young people to feel comfortable and for the medical professionals to treat them with respect.”
Being involved in the Sexy and Safe project has helped Mia get her confidence back and she is thrilled to be able to use her lived experience to affect positive change. “It absolutely makes me feel like it wasn’t for nothing. It’s definitely brought back my power to be like ‘this is me. This is what happened’ I can just own it now.”
You can read the entire reports and recommendations at sexyandsafe.com.au