Reaching Out

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A community comes together to investigate behaviors leading to substance abuse and HIV infection, and to offer prevention education to students.

First time college students make a number of important academic and personal decisions as they learn to manage the independence that comes with living away from home. Some of these decisions will have an important impact on their future, such as choice of school and major area of study, but equally important are social decisions, some of which involve spontaneous, risk-taking behaviors with potentially devastating, permanent consequences.

National surveys reveal that drug and alcohol use, abuse, and dependence increase significantly in 18-25 year olds, and decline again dramatically for those 26 and older. Likewise, the rate of HIV diagnosis increases significantly and is the highest in the 20-24 year old age range, disproportionately high for people of color. Plus, alcohol and drug use increase the risk of unsafe sex.

With an interest to study attitudes and behaviors that can lead to substance abuse and HIV infection and to offer group-level prevention programming to college students, Tracey Ryan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Melissa Lopez, R.N., BSN, MPH, Director of Health Services, partnered with the Greater Bridgeport Area Prevention program (GBAPP) on GBAPP’s Odyssey Project in 2010. The project is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP).

Ryan’s involvement in the project, now starting its fourth year, has been to research and analyze attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors surrounding alcohol and drug use and unprotected sex practices among college age students, in order to better understand how to effectively mitigate behaviors that can lead to life-long physical and mental health challenges.

Why does someone participate in risky behaviors, knowing that they are risky? – Tracey Ryan

Ryan’s research began with a needs assessment to help determine the level of risky behaviors among UB undergraduates. Data from surveys previously administered by UB’s student affairs offices was analyzed, along with data collected via a survey administered by Ryan at the beginning of the project to approximately 120 UB students. Ryan served as co-investigator for the project’s community assessment under the leadership of Gretchen Vaughn, Ph.D. licensed clinical psychologist and the project’s primary investigator. The findings allowed Ryan and Vaughn to formulate a preliminary “snapshot” of student knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward substance abuse and unprotected sex.

The snapshot, according to Ryan, confirms what researchers know — that young adults partake in unsafe sexual behaviors, knowing that they are not healthy or mistakenly believing that some are safe, despite significant programming in HIV prevention throughout middle school and high school. In addition, survey respondents reported that over half of their peers binge drink regularly, while just under one-fourth reported that they had actually done so.

This prompted Ryan to ask, “Why does someone participate in risky behaviors, knowing that they are risky? Why do some mistakenly believe that certain behaviors are safe when, in fact, they aren’t? Why are there false impressions about binge drinking?” Ultimately Ryan hopes her research will help discover how these risky behaviors can be reduced or eliminated.
reaching_400GBAPP and Lopez stepped in to work with Ryan on the educational components: first GBAPP staff and then Ryan made classroom presentations on awareness around substance abuse and unsafe sex to psychology and human services students. Lopez, working with design faculty, engaged graphic design students to develop posters and other print media for a social marketing campaign, complete with poster competition and exhibition.

During the project’s first year, Ryan and Lopez ran multiple focus groups around the posters, engaging groups comprised of administrators, faculty, staff and students, with eight to 10 participants each. The focus groups were asked to evaluate which posters they considered to have the most potential to change attitudes and behaviors. Ryan was surprised with the results, explaining, “While some posters were quite provocative, even the most conservative faculty members found them to be appropriate for college campuses.”

Odyssey Project programming on campus is part of a nationwide effort to reduce HIV infection rates among college students through education and activities. The Odyssey Project is under the leadership of Nancy Kingwood, MSHS who serves as Project Director, with funding made available through The Minority AIDS Initiative. The model programming, provided by GBAPP staff to UB students, is comprised of SISTA, Sisters Informing Sisters on Topics about AIDS, for African-American females, and NIA, A Program of Purpose, which is designed for an African-American male audience.

At UB, the men’s and women’s groups meet privately in the dorms. These intensive groups provide a place where, through group work and exercises, participants can talk about unsafe behaviors and how to change those behaviors. Data collected through surveys administered to group members is being used to validate the effectiveness of the programming models.

This year, Ryan and Lopez plan to start up new focus groups to identify barriers that prevent students from seeking HIV testing as well as factors that are more likely to motivate students to seek testing.

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