The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has awarded the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) $900,000 over three years to work with minority youth at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.

“SMART Cougars Plus” builds on the college’s existing “SMART Cougars” project that provides free, rapid-HIV testing and counseling to UH students and young people in the surrounding community. While the original project targeted Hispanic and African-American youth, the new grant will expand its reach to other minority youth on campus and in the community.

“Young people ages 18-24 who are Asian-American, Asian, Southeast Asian, North African and Middle Eastern, who are UH students or who live in the surrounding community, will now be served with this project,” said Luis Torres, principal investigator and associate dean of research and strategic partnerships. “SMART Cougars Plus” also will target UH students who are veterans or active military regardless of their racial or ethnic background.”

The expanded program also will offer Hepatitis C virus (HCV) tests for those at highest risk. HCV can be transmitted sexually or through needle sharing. It can lead to chronic liver infection and, in extreme cases, liver cirrhosis or liver cancer, making early detection and intervention critical.

“SMART” stands for Substance Use, Mental Health, and HIV/AIDS Risk Assessment and Testing. The project is a partnership between the GCSW and Houston Area Community Services, Inc. (HACS).

Torres said HIV is spreading among minority populations through unprotected sexual encounters, as opposed to sharing of needles or other high-risk behavior involving the use and abuse of drugs. Hispanic and African-American youth have the lowest rates of HIV testing, he said, and many minority young people delay testing because of stigma, fear of finding out their status or they don’t have access to health care.

“One of the lessons of our current project (“SMART Cougars”) has been that young adults from other minority groups are also aware that their behaviors might place them at risk, but they don’t feel comfortable seeking help in their local community for fear of being identified and stigmatized,” Torres said. “SMART Cougars Plus” will be available to all minority groups on campus. Being able to walk into an office on campus, away from the local community, to discuss their risk behaviors and get tested in a safe, non-judgmental environment is a big plus.”

Up to one-third of returning veterans will need mental health and/or substance abuse treatment and related services, and many of their family members have an increased need for related support services as well, according to SAMHSA.

Testing at the UH Campus Recreation and Wellness Center and several locations throughout campus and in nearby communities began in fall 2014. Testing and counseling is conducted by trained HIV/AIDS prevention specialists.

Rapid-HIV testing involves a minimal amount of blood and provides results usually within 20 minutes. Participants also receive screenings for substance use and mental health issues while waiting for their results. Through post-HIV test counseling, the client leaves knowing his/her status, next steps, as well as risks and how to decrease them. If needed, they will be connected to treatment.