UNITY — A recent health report ranking New Hampshire counties finds Sullivan County still struggling to improve the county’s persistently high rate of teen pregnancy and low numbers of young adults who pursue a postsecondary degree.
The Public Health Advisory Council for the Sullivan County region met with county Board of Commissioners yesterday to share 2019 county health data from by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Wisconsin Population Health Institute, which aggregates health data from counties and states nationwide each year. Released in March, the 2019 report ranks the counties in each state based on a range of data: access to mental health and dental care, socioeconomic-related issues, lifestyle health, high-risk activities and other factors.
According to the report, teen births in Sullivan County have risen slightly since 2016, while the state average has declined. The teen birth rate in Sullivan increased from 17 per 1,000 females ages 15-19 in 2016 to 19 per 1,000 in 2019. The increase runs counter to the decline elsewhere in the state, where the combined state average fell, from 15 per 1,000 females in 2017 to 11 per 1,000 in 2019.
Sullivan County’s teen birth rate is not only the highest in the state, but significantly higher than any state average in New England. The next highest rate is in Maine, with 13 per 1,000 females.
New England’s teen birth rates are lower on average than the rest of the country, according to 2019 data from worldpopulationreview.com. Arkansas is highest in the country, with a rate of 32.8 per 1,000.
Samantha Paradis Torres, an early child and family resources specialist at the One-4-All Center in Claremont, said that lack of health education and access to resources factor greatly into teen pregnancy rates.
“It’s not always a problem of poverty,” Torres said. “Sometimes it’s the lack of a parent with the knowledge and experience to teach the adolescent about the reproductive cycle and how to prevent or reduce the risk of pregnancy.”
Access to affordable health resources, including birth control, is also important, Torres said. Claremont is fortunate to have numerous resources in its downtown that aren’t as available elsewhere in the county. In addition to the Planned Parenthood on Pleasant Street, which provides low-cost women’s health care, contraceptives and sex education, Stevens High School makes free condoms available to students. The city has several family resources and youth programs through non-profit organizations like the TLC Family Resource Center. TLC’s services include SHINE, a youth enrichment program that engages adolescents in conversations about sexual health, empowerment and relationship-building.
Torres also pointed to the One-4-All’s success in helping pregnant teens and young mothers work toward economic independence through child care, parenting education and support services. Since the center opened in 2017, two teen mothers were able to graduate from high school and complete nursing and medical care programs at River Valley Community College, while another — who had her LNA degree – got help with the challenges of raising a child while balancing other responsibilities.
While Sullivan County’s high school graduation rate remained in line with past years (87-84%), the number of 25-to-44 year-olds with some post-secondary education has declined, from 61% in 2016 to 57% in 2019. Sullivan county’s percentage is 13% below the state average.
Sullivan County still has the lowest rate of unemployment in New Hampshire, tied with Grafton County. However, while the unemployment rate has incrementally dropped since 2016, from 3.5% to 2.2% in 2019, the county poverty rate of 16% remains the same as three years earlier, which indicates a problem of underemployment or low-wage employment.
According to Dr. Aurora Drew of the advisory council, Sullivan’s county health ranking improved from ninth among New Hampshire’s 10 counties for health outcomes in 2017 to seventh in 2019. However, the council’s initial encouragement was somewhat dampened by closer analysis of the data.
“It’s not so much that our county’s health outcomes improved, but that a couple of other counties have been really hurt by the opioid crisis,” Drew said. “Dramatic life losses due to opioids lowered their rankings, causing our county ranking to look better than it really is.”
Several New Hampshire counties have had sizeable spikes in their number of premature deaths, which measures the years of potential life lost before age 75 per 100,000 population. Sullivan’s measure of 6,700 is slightly lower than it was in 2016 (6,900). Counties with measures at or above 7,000 include Bellknap (7,200), Carroll (7,500), Strafford (7,000) and Coos (8,400).