Health promotion through storytelling

Student uses Magellan grant to help professor reach at-risk group about HIV prevention

For decades, African-American women have been at a higher risk than others for contracting HIV, totaling nearly 60 percent of new cases diagnosed each year. In the South, the diagnosis is even more prevalent. Most commonly transmitted through unprotected sexual behavior or needle sharing, HIV attacks and weakens the immune system, making it hard to fight off infections and disease.  Without proper treatment, the virus can result in AIDS and death.

After realizing the disproportionate number of new cases among African-American women, Alyssa Robillard, associate professor in health promotion, education and behavior in the Arnold School of Public Health, began looking for ways to reach women with information about safer sex and getting tested. Upon discovering storytelling as a way to promote health, Robillard began documenting the experiences of HIV-positive African-American women. Now she is using the data from her research to produce an audiobook that will educate African-American women about the risks associated with sexual behavior and methods on staying safe in their relationships.

“I have been interested in storytelling and its role in promoting health for quite a while,” says Robillard. “My interest began based on stories to promote colorectal screening among Latinos, but I wanted to apply it to the work I was doing in HIV. My mentor, Linda Larkey, does storytelling work in colorectal screening and I credit her for introducing me to this area.”

The audiobook, titled “I Knew Better,” follows the story of Camille and Lorenzo, two African-American characters that are in a relationship. The story details safe use of contraception and risky sexual behavior, all within situations that resonate with African-American women. After completing the background research, including focus groups and cultural narrative interviews of individual experiences, Robillard enlisted the help of one of her mentees, Chelsea Perry, a junior majoring in public health and counselor education. Perry jumped at the opportunity last semester and began helping produce the audiobook.

“I hope this story inspires African-American women to be safe in their relationships and while casually dating,” says Perry. “I want them to know that the disease disproportionately affects us, and it is time we change the stigma around talking about HIV.”

To further their research efforts, Perry sought help from the Magellan Scholars program, a research assistance program that provides up to $3,000 for salary, materials and travel expenses for student researchers in all disciplines. The program has been around since 2005 and recently celebrated its 25th round of awards and Perry as its 1,500th scholar award.

“We wouldn’t be able to complete this study without the Magellan Scholars program,” says Perry. “The workshops that we attended and the information given to us about ethical concerns and other important topics in research have really helped guide us throughout this process. The program has really been a big help.”

Perry’s research focuses on the narrative characteristics of the audiobook, studying questions such as: How relatable are the events and characters in the story? How compelling is the story? Will listeners talk to a sexual or romantic partner about the story? From her findings, the two will adjust the story for more effective results.

“Working on this research project has allowed me to realize the need for regular HIV testing and communication regarding condom use within the African-American community,” says Perry. “With the project, I hope to minimize the stigma that is associated with HIV testing and increase communication about consistent condom use between sexual partners.”

The next steps for Robillard and Perry are a pilot study to gauge interest and see how receptive listeners are to the story. After receiving feedback and making adjustments, the story will have a formal release with hopes that it will change the sexual behaviors of at-risk groups. They ultimately hope to become a model for future HIV-prevention programs.

“I’m grateful for the Magellan Scholars program because it allows a formal way for us to work together — for Chelsea to gain valuable research experience and for me to have the chance to work with such a bright and enthusiastic student,” says Robillard. “I’m really looking forward to continued work with her, and I am excited about where this experience leads her.”

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