This story has been modified to reflect that the national rate for teen births is 26.5 per 1,000.
PITTSFIELD — The birth rate among teenagers in Berkshire County declined by more than half between 2009 and 2014, according to figures released by the Massachusetts Department of Health.
The birth rate among 15- to 19-year-old females in 2014 was 12.4 births per 1,000 — a more than 54 percent reduction. The rates in Pittsfield (57 percent) and North Adams (63 percent) showed the most dramatic decreases. Meanwhile, the state birth rate for teens has declined 46 percent during the same period. Both the state and Berkshire County rates are below the national rate of 26.5 teen births per 1,000.
According to Nataly Garzon, coordinator for youth development at the Berkshire United Way, the declines are consistent with a national downward trend in births among teenagers. She attributes the drop to efforts that provide evidenced-based reproductive health education along with wider access to reproductive health counseling and contraceptives.
"It is a complex effort to provide consistent information to all the sources teens go to," including their parents, the schools and social media, Garzon said. "We're trying to provide them with the right tools and information to allow them to be able to make the right choices."
The effort that began several years ago is having an effect today, she added.
"We're very excited that the plan is having an impact, but we're going to continue to try to reduce those figures even more," Garzon said. "We want to make sure all teens know these things so we can significantly reduce those numbers over the next four years."
She noted that the local United Way is working with Tapestry Health, a Western Massachusetts nonprofit that provides family planning and reproductive health services, to provide interested teenagers with educational information, counseling and reproductive health care services.
According to Katrina Mattson, health services manager for Tapestry in Berkshire County, Tapestry counselors visit seven high schools monthly — Drury, Lee, Pittsfield, Taconic, Wahconah Regional, Hoosac Valley, and Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public — at a table near the lunch room, where teens can pick up at will information packets and set up appointments for counseling or other services. Both Garzon and Mattson said an effort is under way to set up tables in all of the high schools in Berkshire County.
With Chapter 10 federal funding, Tapestry counselors help teens to understand the risks and consequences that come with sexual activity, and offer solutions to issues the teens might be having.
Health services are also provided by appointment and can be paid through insurance. But when the teen is in a situation where bringing a parent into the process would be impractical, the services are provided at a greatly reduced rate — or "pretty much free," as Mattson described it.
She said that while the service is 100 percent confidential, they always encourage the teens to bring their parents into the discussion. Some are unable because the young person isn't yet ready to talk to their parents, Mattson said.
"We always encourage young people to talk to their parents but they are not always ready when they become sexually active," she said. "That is why it is important that they can consent for their own care at Tapestry. When asked, Tapestry can provide the information and counseling needed to devise a birth control plan, as well as testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections."
"It means better outcomes for everybody, especially the young people," Mattson said. "For teenagers, delaying pregnancy is just a better option and results in better outcomes in the long run."
"Unfortunately," Garzon said, "teen moms are not likely to attain educational goals that they would have otherwise, especially here in Berkshire County."
Tapestry also provides reproductive life planning with young men regarding what their plans are for children and birth control methods they or their partner are using or considering.
Kristine Hazzard, president and CEO of the Berkshire United Way, said it is gratifying that the effort to reduce teen pregnancy is paying off.
"As thrilled as we are with these measurable results, there is still more to be done," Hazzard said. "The decline in the rate is fantastic, but Berkshire County is still above the state average. When you consider that there were 57 teen births countywide in 2014, including 37 teen births in Pittsfield, 13 in North Adams, five in Adams, and six across seven other Berkshire County towns — it's startling.
"With school systems slashing health education budgets across the county, it's important that we educate parents, caregivers, community providers, and other caring adults to be a resource for our youth when they have questions about sexual health and relationships."