Sexuality, Surgery and Support: Do Healthcare Professionals meet the needs of young people?

‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ - Maya Angelou

As a paediatric nurse in my second year of training, this is a quote I always try to live by. Whether it’s my third or fourth shift in a row, or it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, kindness goes a long way.

When I went into this career, it was dealing with young people that scared me most. Being a quirky, unpopular teen, it was as if I went to work still expecting it to be fraught with playground rivalry and snitching. But it soon dawned on me that even in the few years since I’ve been a teen, the world has changed a lot and though healthcare in the UK has risen to a lot of these challenges, there are definitely still some areas for improvement.

As nurses, we learn a lot about the power of speaking with young people and creating ‘therapeutic relationships’, about getting to the crux of the complex reasons why they might be in hospital, but, almost always, this is easier said than done.

Personally, I’m daunted by the challenges that come with trying to seem approachable, I’m nervous that however hard I try to understand and empathise with people, I might get it wrong, particularly when it comes to matters as personal as sexuality and gender.

In my haste to try and be supportive to a young person of any gender or sexual orientation, I know I get my words in a muddle. I don’t know about pronouns or pansexuality any more than Google has told me, nor do I know how to nurse young trans people in an environment that is safe and comfortable to them.

Sure, I can give talks on anatomy and contraception. I can explain the role of consent and tell you about safeguarding protocols until I’m blue in the face. But, am I equipped to support a child in every aspect of their care and recovery, emotionally, socially and physically, when I’m still Googling ‘how important is lesbian contraception’.

And I know I’m not alone, which begs the question: is the NHS really prepared for this generation of children who are so, so ready to truly be themselves, and who need our support to do that?

Am I, as a practitioner, ready for that?

Probably not, but it is happening. On our wards and in our hospitals' young people who are coming in for a range of issues, both physical and mental, need support with everything from contraception to coming out and we’re not always able to give it.

But, if I have learned anything, it’s this: I can try. I can start a conversation, even if I have to preface it with the disclaimer that I might get something wrong and to please tell me if I do; that I can’t fully understand their experiences, but that I still want to hear about how it affects them and how they want to move forward; that even if I don’t know the answers, I’m willing to learn, both from them and with them.

Part of being a nurse is about meeting your patient where they are and working to improve from there. This is true of physical, mental and emotional needs and as part of that, we, as professionals, need to be ready to incorporate gender and sexuality into our practice, because to ignore it would be a disservice to the courage of the young people who have come out, who have faced mental health problems because of these issues, and who need, want and deserve, not only our help but also our support.

Author Bio: I am studying to become a Children and Young People's Nurse, this involves three years of training, each of which has two three month placements working with young people in either a hospital or community setting. A lot of our time on these placements is spent getting to know patients, understanding the needs of the ward or unit where we are working and getting to grips with our roles within these teams. We work full shifts, including nights, from year one and really do get thrown straight in, which is a really immersive way of understanding the needs of your client group, and something that I relish. I have loved my placements so far, particularly those in a hospital setting, and can't wait to qualify next year!

Suzi Boulting