By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
When Kristen Hernandez decided on a research career in public health, she imagined working in a lab surrounded by microscopes and other high-tech equipment.
“I really thought that a beaker had to be involved in doing research,” Hernandez said with a laugh. She graduated with a Master of Public Health from The University of Texas at El Paso in 2013. “Sometimes when we’re out (in the community) and doing (health related) surveys, I think other people don’t think that what we are doing is research, but this is how we find out about their health needs.”
Instead of working in a lab on campus, the two alumni and postdoctoral research fellow Holly Mata are out in the community conducting a first-of-its-kind study that explores the relationships between mental health, substance use, sleep quality and high-risk sexual behavior among 100 Hispanic men who identify themselves as gay or bisexual.
“When we had the opportunity to do this study, we knew that gay and bisexual men (men who have sex with men) have a substantially higher risk for HIV than heterosexual men, and there’s a lot of evidence showing that stress leads to reduced sleep quality,” said Mata, a Certified Health Education Specialist who earned her Ph.D. in interdisciplinary health sciences from UTEP in 2011. ”Our thinking is that stress is going to lead to reduced sleep quality, which in turn may contribute to high-risk sexual behaviors. This study will help us understand these relationships.”
The S3 El Paso: Sex, Sleep and Stress study emerged from the VIDA II Project — a study examining intimate partner violence, substance use, and HIV risk among Latinos. Both studies are under the direction of School of Nursing Dean Elias Provencio-Vasquez, Ph.D., who is the principal investigator.
Research indicates that poor sleep quality is related to disturbances in mood, coping, decision-making, self-esteem and functioning, all of which are factors linked to high-risk sex.
Researchers at UTEP believe this may be the first study to investigate sleep quality in Hispanic men who identify as gay or bisexual and the first study to provide a more comprehensive assessment of mental health factors and their relationship to high-risk sexual behaviors. Mata hopes the information they collect will help develop an intervention that will reduce HIV risk.
As part of the study, Hernandez and Martinez conduct one-on-one interviews with men to assess their mental health, sleep quality and sexual risk behaviors. So far, they have collected more than 50 surveys.
Martinez, who also surveyed men and women for the VIDA II Project, said getting people to open up about such intimate matters as drug use and sexual history has been a challenge.
“I have to make sure that I establish some sort of connection with a person so that they will open up to me once I start asking questions, which is really hard to do especially when you’re asking personal questions,” said Martinez, whose first job out of high school was as a health educator with the El Paso Department of Public Health.
However, the two research assistants have had some success with recruiting participants through word of mouth and the M Factor program, a social organization for young gay and bisexual males ages 18-39 in El Paso. Established by the Department of Public Health, the goal of M Factor is to reduce the rates of unprotected sex and the spread of HIV among young gay and bisexual men.
“When I talk to participants, I bring up the issue that we don’t know what our Hispanic culture is like here in El Paso when it comes to LGBT issues,” Martinez said. “We don’t have that research here and they are breaking ground with us.”
M Factor Co-Coordinator David Peralta-Torres completed the survey, which he said asked some very important questions about issues affecting gay men today.
“Their study focuses on our target population, so anything that can benefit the community, I am more than happy to help with,” Peralta-Torres said. “I think it’s great that they are looking at these issues. I don’t know of anyone else, at least not in El Paso, that is taking an active role in exploring these important issues.”
Working together also has given Hernandez and Martinez an opportunity to see how public health practitioners and nurses collaborate on health related issues. With a background in public health, Hernandez focuses on preventive services and health education, while Martinez, a nurse at Del Sol, has his strength in clinical practice.
“Our approaches are very different and our way of thinking is also very different, but we combine our expertise,” said Hernandez, who first participated in a research study about alcohol use as an undergraduate student at UTEP.
Hernandez is thinking about enrolling in a graduate nursing program that focuses on administration policy. Martinez started at the HHDRC three years ago and is hoping to continue his research career by pursing a Ph.D. in nursing.
Last spring, as part of the VIDA II project, Hernandez and Martinez were tasked with disseminating the project’s results about HIV awareness to physicians, nurses and other health practitioners throughout El Paso County and the outlying areas.
This past summer, Hernandez and Martinez were part of a team that surveyed 1,400 residents in public housing for a study Mata conducted that the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso used to develop a smoke-free policy.
Mata said studies like the S3 El Paso: Sex, Sleep and Stress and the VIDA II Project offer an opportunity for researchers to come together to improve the health of the community.
“Public health and nursing research is all about the people and it’s about relationships,” Mata said. “It’s about finding out what people’s concerns are, what people’s needs are and … it’s about being able to use that research to make changes in either practice or policy or turn it into things that are actually going to make a difference in people’s health.”