Cougars get S.M.A.R.T.

Research indicates that new cases of HIV infection disproportionately affect Hispanic and African-American youth ages 18 to 24, which is the target group for the S.M.A.R.T. Cougars program that provides free HIV testing, substance abuse and mental health referrals for UH students.

The program will launch in April at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center and is made possible by a grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. S.M.A.R.T. Cougars is headed by Luis Torres, an assistant professor in the Graduate College of Social Work, who wants to provide “services for early detection.”

“This generation is savvy and intelligent, but the disconnect is that they think this doesn’t apply to them,” Torres said about youth born after the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. “As the model of care for HIV/AIDS becomes a chronic model, the sense of urgency is diluted, and youth take unnecessary risks.”

“HIV may not be a death sentence anymore, but it is life-changing,” said Maria Wilson, the S.MA.R.T. Cougars project coordinator. Wilson will work with a team of prevention specialists who will meet with students for pre- and post-testing counseling and to screen for other risk factors, including substance abuse and mental health.

“Our hope is that students who walk through the door will want a comprehensive assessment,” Wilson said. If a student is labeled as high-risk for or struggling with substance abuse or mental-health issues, they will be referred to a local agency based on their individual needs.

“The only way to stop the stigma of HIV/AIDS is to get people tested more often,” said Evelio Escamilla, the research administrator for the program.

According to Torres, the goal is to have an open discussion with students, and the prevention specialists are trained not to judge behavior patterns of people between 18 to 24 and to try to understand what it means to be a part of the younger generation’s culture.

“The Wellness Center is the perfect location,” Wilson said. “(Students can say), ‘I’m here for S.M.A.R.T. Cougars’ without the stigma of saying, ‘I’m here for HIV testing.'”

When the program launches, testing and evaluations will be free and students can choose to walk in or make an appointment through the Wellness Center.

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