Kenneth Foster, PhD, first saw the face of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s while conducting research on HIV-positive patients. One, a 19-year-old man, died before the first follow-up interview. "That drove home the reality of what we were dealing with," says Foster.
Today, the fight against HIV/AIDS is one that we're closer to winning, says Foster, now a professor of psychology at Texas Woman's University. "I'm less worried about people dying than I am about getting [them] education and resources," he says.
And that's something Foster, working through an APA program, can do something about. He is one of about 300 volunteers in the Behavioral and Social Science Volunteer (BSSV) program, an effort directed by APA's Office on AIDS and funded through a $2.8 million agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The program partners community organizations that address HIV/AIDS with volunteer psychologists, social workers, anthropologists and others. They play several roles, including helping the organizations respond to the mental health aspects of HIV prevention and care, collecting and presenting data, and evaluating their efforts.
Since its launch in 1996, the BSSV Program has provided face-to-face orientation training to more than 500 volunteers and helped close to 700 community organizations across the United States, Puerto Rico and Guam.
Such assistance is critical for these organizations, which often lack funding or struggle to determine their communities' needs. Many such groups have grand goals but no clear strategies to achieve them.
"In many cases, they run on passion," says volunteer Jason Young, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Hunter College of the City University of New York, who most recently helped the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force develop a way to evaluate its services.
What's more, over the years, community organizations have become more complex, says program director Edna Davis-Brown, MPH. In addition to caring for those infected, many now also offer testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, provide housing assistance, refer people to primary-care physicians, and run needle exchange and condom distribution programs. "They are rethinking how they provide services and link folks up to care," Davis-Brown says.
Foster's project, the Texas Black Women's Initiative, is a statewide campaign aimed at raising black women's awareness of their risk for HIV/AIDS. He is working with other BSSV volunteers, state leaders and a university colleague, Kimberly Parker, PhD, to develop a means to evaluate whether the campaign is successful. If it is, they expect it to serve as a model for organizations nationwide.
BSSV program staff at APA also train volunteers through in-person and online workshops to implement evidence-based interventions developed by the CDC. Two such interventions are CLEAR, which uses cognitive-behavioral techniques to empower people with or at high risk for HIV/AIDS to make healthy choices, and Healthy Relationships, a small-group intervention aimed at reducing stress among men and women with HIV/AIDS and decreasing their sexual risk behaviors.
In its latest effort, the BSSV program is encouraging community organizations to better integrate mental health and substance abuse issues into their services, a worthy endeavor since it's been estimated that 50 percent of HIV-positive adults have a mental health disorder (Archives of General Psychiatry, 2001).
"We are excited because this intervention is in line with CDC's goals and it is really our expertise," says Davis-Brown.
In March 2014, the CDC will decide whether to renew the BSSV grant. Davis-Brown is optimistic. Unlike most of its competitors, the program relies almost entirely on volunteers, allowing it to dedicate most of the funding to the community, she says. In the meantime, they'll remain dedicated to the fight.
"We've come a long way," says Foster. "But there's no denying the reality that … people are still dying."