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UVI Receives $900,000 Grant for Substance Abuse/HIV Prevention in the V.I.

Photo of UVI's Peer Educators during outreach program

The University of the Virgin Islands, with support from a substantial federal grant, is developing and implementing a Substance Abuse and HIV Prevention Program with the goal of reducing drug use and abuse, and preventing the transmission of HIV infections among college students and other young adults in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Photo: UVI Substance Abuse and HIV/Aids Prevention Project Coordinator Alyssa Ryan joined UVI Peer Educators for a day of public outreach at UVI’s recent Afternoon on the Green activity. Shown, from left, are Elvaneice Huggins, Ryan, Sachoon Blackwood and Sean Benjamin Jr. 

With the Virgin Islands being ranked number two in the nation based on rate per capita for reported HIV cases, a major component of the program will be targeted at reducing HIV-related risk factors such as substance abuse – primarily alcohol and marijuana – among college students and young adults in the community, according to Program Director Dr. Doris Battiste. (The number two ranking is according to the V.I. Department of Health’s HIV Surveillance 2010 Annual Report.)

Dr. Battiste, UVI’s dean of students on the St. Thomas Campus, said the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is providing $300,000 per year for three years through its Division of Community Programs to support the territory wide effort. “This grant recognizes the prevalence of substance abuse and the high rate of HIV infection in the Virgin Islands,” she said.

“Surveys show that alcohol is the main drug of choice on college campuses nationwide, and UVI is no different. It’s a problem on our campus and in our community and we need to address it,” Dr. Battiste said. “The consequences of alcohol abuse lead to poor decision making, irresponsible behavior, domestic violence, sexual assault, and lower GPA when compared to those who do not drink.”

Following alcohol, the illegal use of marijuana is the second biggest substance use issue here, she said.

The program hopes to reach African American and Hispanic students between the ages of 18 and 24, both on UVI’s campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix, as well as other young adults throughout the territory. Early objectives are to increase the number of individuals getting tested for HIV for the first time and decreasing the consumption of alcohol and other drugs among these individuals.

“Over the next three years the grant will allow UVI to build partnerships with non-student, community based organizations such as HOPE, Inc. (Helping Others in a Positive Environment), the V.I. Association for Independent Living, and the Access to Racial and Cultural Health (ARCH) Institute on St. Croix, as well as the Virgin Islands Department of Health’s Division of Mental Health, Alcoholism and Drug Dependency,” Dr. Battiste said.

The project, which continues through the fall of 2016, will also help increase the amount of on- and off-campus outreach events and activities conducted in the territory, according to Dr. Battiste.

Spearheading the outreach effort is full-time Program Coordinator Alyssa Ryan, who is based on UVI’s St. Thomas Campus. Ryan, a certified and licensed prevention specialist who graduated from UVI in 2011 with a degree in social science, previously spent two years as a prevention fellow in the Virgin Islands, working directly for the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. In that role she acquired hands-on experience in junior and senior high schools.

Substance abuse prevention aims to reinforce abstinence, or proper use of alcohol and drugs, according to Ryan, whose previous position included several trips to the states for specialized training. “The goal is to prevent use from becoming misuse, prevent misuse from becoming abuse, and prevent abuse from becoming addiction,” she said.

The program also provides training for student peer educators on both St. Thomas and St. Croix, who share accurate messages about drugs, alcohol and HIV with their fellow students and members of the larger community. “Raising awareness about HIV/AIDS in our community will contribute towards the goal of getting to zero: zero new HIV infections, zero deaths from AIDS-related illness and zero discrimination,” Ryan said. This year alone the efforts have included organizing a week of events during Alcohol Abuse Awareness Month on campus, joining St. Thomas’ Annual Drug and Crime Prevention Bazaar, which is sponsored by the Virgin Islands Prevention Council, Inc. and the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, and sponsoring a public forum on truth and myths about marijuana in conjunction with the UVI Counseling Center and the Psychology Student Association. The popular forum, which drew a large turnout, featured representatives from the V.I. Legislature, the V.I. Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Dr. Battiste added that in the future the program will include a major media component – including radio and TV public service announcements, and the recruitment of participants from specific groups, such as individuals with physical disabilities or at-risk male populations.

Also assisting with the effort is Dr. Kimarie Engerman, an associate professor of psychology on UVI’s St. Thomas Campus. She serves as a project evaluator for the program.

For more information about the UVI Substance Abuse and HIV Prevention Program, please contact the program’s staff at (340) 693-1120 or 693-1122.