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NIH Fellowship Allows Ph.D. Student to Pursue Her Passion to Help

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Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Joi-Sheree’ Knighton saw first-hand the implications of drug use and the incidence of HIV infection in African American men and women. Now, thanks to a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, Knighton will continue to examine these issues and the state of healthcare among these populations.

“I have seen individuals struggle with substance use and eventually overcome this disease,” said Knighton, a doctoral student in the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology (EDP) in the UK College of Education. “The dissolution of long-term marriages and families as a result of substance use is an all too familiar story. It is not uncommon to overhear stories of rampant frustration from the gross lack of services available to get substance use treatment or mental healthcare.”

The Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Fellowship provides Knighton three years of funding to support research that will focus on training in epidemiology of substance use, mental health and HIV as they relate to health disparities among African Americans. The NRSA award allows for a hands-on role in the primary data collection of her proposed National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) project examining substance use, mental health and HIV in African American men involved in the criminal justice system.

Knighton says that without the mentorship of Assistant Professor Danelle Stevens-Watkins she never would have had the confidence to conduct the research necessary to receive the fellowship. She credits Stevens-Watkins for taking the time to help her build her research skills while also realizing the importance of research in her academic pursuits.

And it’s Knighton’s life experience that greatly informs her actual research. Working at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Lexington she is reminded on a daily basis how substance use affects lives. She says that she is given a visual image of the disproportionate rates of incarcerated African American men for non-violent, drug-related crimes. But with all the negative, she also has seen how many have achieved sobriety and worked toward better mental health. Through her graduate research she has seen a prevalence of substance use and HIV infection among African American men and women.

“Substance use has been identified as a predominant HIV risk factor, particularly among African American men who engage in unprotected sexual contact with men and women,” Knighton said. “To complicate things further, African Americans are significantly less likely to seek treatment or drop out of treatment prematurely due to perceived racism, lack of insurance and low income, along with a host of other related barriers. Thus, many will go undetected and fail to receive services that can improve prognosis. The harsh reality of these health disparities has inspired my research to date.”

From her experiences in Detroit and from working in the prison system, Knighton sees how detrimental these issues can be. She’s concerned not only how these individuals are perceived by others, but also how they perceive themselves. In addition, she remains committed to encouraging open discussion and reducing stigma surrounding health issues that plague African American communities.

Knighton’s relationship with these communities has given her the insight and the desire to make a difference.

“Collectively, these experiences have all exposed me and left me feeling connected in one way or another to the deleterious effects associated with substance use and HIV risk behaviors. I have internalized a responsibility to continue to bring light to these issues. I remain driven by the opportunity to examine something that has implications for so many people.”

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