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Saturday, September 30, 2023


GCSW launches SMART Cougars Plus

The Graduate College of Social Work is launching a new Substance Use, Mental Health, and HIV/AIDS Risk Assessment and Testing Cougars Plus program that will provide free HIV/AIDS testing to students the community, as well as expanded services, building on the original SMART Cougars Plus program.

“In addition to free HIV and HCV testing, the SMART Cougars and SMART Cougars Plus programs provide information, education, linkage to care, referrals and resources to campus and community services and agencies,” said Maria Wilson, project coordinator for SMART Cougars.

“The program also provides free condoms and safe sex kits (including) lubrication and instructional pamphlets.”

Free HIV testing and other services provided by SMART Cougars Plus is available at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

SMART Cougar Plus is specifically aimed at UH students and community members between the ages of 18 and 24, who are Asian American, Asian, Southeast Asian, North African and Middle Eastern.

The program will also target current military members and veterans, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, said Associate Professor and Associate Director at the Center for Drug and Social Policy Research Luis Torres.

“These minority young adult populations are identified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the request for proposals as important targets for efforts to prevent and reduce substance abuse and transmission of HIV/AIDS/HCV, due to their continued risk,” Torres said.

SAMSHA awarded the Graduate College of Social Work $900,000 over three years to fund SMART Cougars Plus.

“The funding is used to provide a comprehensive intervention to the target population that includes an individualized, evidence-based prevention counseling session focused on identifying and reducing risk factors for mental health, substance use, and HIV/AIDS/HCV,” Torres said. “Rapid HIV and HCV testing are part of this intervention. The funding covers salaries, testing supplies, marketing materials, and participant incentives.”

However, Torres identified one particular obstacle to the program’s potential success, one that many similar initiatives have struggled to address – stigma.

“One of the most important things we can do to prevent HIV/AIDS/HCV is to know our status, and many people, especially in the target population, don’t get tested due to stigma,” Torres said. “The same is true of mental health and substance use. Most people who are impacted do not seek help, and one of the key reasons, besides access, is stigma.”

Evelio Escamilla, research administrator for GCSW and assistant to the SMART Cougars Plus program, holds out hope that society – and UH in particular – can help relieve the reluctance to take advantage of these crucial services.

“Millennials are known for looking beyond and having a very good social consciousness about what’s in their society,” Escamilla said. “Hopefully millennials will really embrace (this opportunity) and get tested frequently and routinely and look after their health and advocate for themselves.”

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