Skip to main content

Virmarie Correa-Fernández Conducts Research to Reduce Tobacco Health Disparities

Virmarie Correa-Fernández Psychological, Health, & Learning Sciences (PHLS) assistant professor, Virmarie Correa-Fernández is conducting a two-phase project funded by an American Cancer Society’s Mentored Research Scholar Grant entitled “Reducing tobacco-related disparities: a focus on mental health”

Correa-Fernández explains that the first phase will examine whether having current depression and/or anxiety disorders predict smoking outcomes at different stages of the quitting process among a multi-ethnic group of adult smokers. This phase will examine which psychosocial factors explain why individuals with depression and anxiety may experience more difficulty quitting successfully.

The second phase of the project will adapt and test a distinctive model of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: ACT) to be applicable and culturally appropriate to Latino smokers with depression and anxiety. The objective of this counseling treatment is to help individuals develop psychological flexibility by strengthening their ability to experience uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and sensations, and choosing health behaviors consistent with their values and goals (e.g. quitting smoking to improve health or being a good example for their children).

After the adaptation stage and the development of a treatment manual, the intervention will be evaluated among 38 Latino smokers. The outcomes of this phase will give preliminary information of what aspects of the counseling may work best to help this population quit smoking, at the same time that they reduce their anxiety and depression.

 “The overall mission of my program of research is to generate knowledge and practices that contribute to reducing tobacco-related and mental health disparities, particularly among Latino ethnic groups,” said Correa-Fernández.

Although the prevalence of smoking is lower for Latinos compared to other racial/ethnic groups, Latino’s main causes of illness are related to smoking and they experience disparities in smoking cessation care. “Thus, by focusing on vulnerable and understudied populations, my research will contribute toward the elimination of inequalities related to tobacco use, which in turn, adds to the department and college mission,” said Correa-Fernández.  “Notably, my research focus is an example of the interdisciplinary nature of our department regarding the joint of the psychological and health sciences”.

 “My work aligns with the college’s focus on health promotion, research and counseling, as well as the PHLS department goal of eliminating disparities in health,” said Correa-Fernández. “For instance, smoking rates in the general population have declined, but remain twice as high for people with behavioral health disorders (including depression and anxiety) compared to those without disorders, potentially contributing to the disproportion in cancer and chronic disease experienced by this subpopulation of smokers.”

University of Houston (UH) students and members of the general community may be eligible to participate in this study, benefitting directly from its process and outcomes. Findings will be disseminated in professional and community forums, including locally at the University of Houston, College of Education. This will give the college’s students exposure to tobacco-related research that includes the development and adaptation of culturally-relevant counseling interventions for Latinos, and would hopefully stimulate their interest in health-related research. It is expected that findings are also translated into practice in the community by integrating them in health promotion programs and/or behavioral health services.