Research in Brief

Snippets of impactful SDSU research projects

Ensuring a healthy start has ‘exponential impact’

SDSU’s Center for Excellence in Early Development (CEED) is bringing its early child- hood mental health consultation services into more San Diego County schools.

Previously, CEED sent graduate student clinicians from its Healthy Early Years (HEY) clinic into about 20 early education classrooms, programs and family childcare centers per year across San Diego County, mostly in moderate- and low-income communities. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, these consultations are set to expand threefold and will extend services to older children.

For four hours per week for more than a dozen weeks, HEY clinicians work with teachers to address children’s social-emotional challenges and help get to the root of the issues at the source of such challenges — often instances of past trauma.

Lisa Linder, who leads CEED and HEY, said clinicians’ classroom consultations significantly increase children’s social-emotional skills, according to teacher ratings. Additional evidence indicates the program lessens harsh teaching practices and boosts teacher sensitivity to children’s emotions and needs. There’s also recognition of its capacity to be a preventive approach to the preschool-to-prison pipeline — the phenomenon of exclusionary discipline on young children correlating to juvenile detention later in life — and a shift away from believing the problem is within the child. “The funding [for these programs] is really setting the stage to create that infrastructure in San Diego County,” said Linder. “This is a great way to provide mental health services in a very cost-effective way that makes an exponential impact.”

—Michael Klitzing

Partnerships expand to diversify social work profession

California faces a growing shortage of mental health providers, especially social workers. To fulfill this need and increase the diversity in the profession, SDSU’s School of Social Work expanded its Master of Social Work programs and internship placements.

With funding from the California Department of Health Services and the California Social Work Education Center, SDSU offers stipends and tuition reimbursements to master’s and undergraduate students pursuing a career in child welfare. Some of these funds are prioritized for current county social service agency employees and Native American students.

Master’s in Social Work (MSW) students must complete two years of on-the-job training to qualify for licensure. In addition to field practicum positions in several on-campus and community clinics, some MSW students have paid internships with the San Diego Center for Children and programs managed by the nonprofit Vista Hill Foundation.

With these efforts, SDSU’s School of Social Work continues its dedication to preparing an ethnically diverse child welfare and behavioral health workforce capable of providing culturally aware and linguistically competent care for the betterment of the region and the state.

—Sarah White

State policies to protect LGBTQIA+ youth take shape

For many LGBTQIA+ young people, the past few years have been particularly trying. State legislatures nationwide have passed a spate of legislation to restrict discussion of LGBTQIA+ matters in schools.

“It’s a scary time period,” said Vinnie Pompei, SDSU’s assistant professor of educational leadership. “What we’re seeing is rhetoric that’s regurgitated from many decades ago — words like ‘eradication,’ words like ‘grooming,’ accusations of sexualizing children and calling LGBTQIA+ people pedophiles. All of this results in more bullying, more harassment and more mental health challenges, including suicide.”

According to a survey by The Trevor Project, 50% of LGBTQIA+ youth between the ages of 13 and 17 have seriously considered attempting suicide.

To address this crisis, Pompei is serving as the only higher education representative on a California Department of Education committee to create materials to train K–12 teachers how to foster safe, LGBTQIA+ affirming classroom environments.

The training curricula will provide information on state laws and policies protecting LGBTQIA+ students in public schools as well as evidence-based practices that improve school safety, particularly for learners who are multiply minoritized. Such practices include using gender-inclusive language (think using “students” instead of “boys and girls”), integrating diverse voices into lesson plans to break down negative biases and supporting student Genders & Sexualities Alliances organizations.

Pompei hopes to work with colleagues at SDSU to integrate the trainings into teacher, school counselor and educational leadership education programs in the College of Education.

—Michael Klitzing

Culture-specific care may improve cocaine users’ cognition

SDSU social and behavioral health scientist Sabrina Smiley is trying to understand the social experiences and cognitive performance of older Black individuals with cocaine use disorder (CUD).

From 2012 to 2018, the death rate from cocaine overdoses increased by an average of 27% annually and is highest among non-Hispanic Black communities at a rate of 8.3 per 100,000 population, which is nearly double the rate of overdose deaths attributed to cocaine among non-Hispanic whites.

Smiley and her team will interview women over 50 years old to identify and map out concrete, culture-specific strategies to develop, implement and evaluate clinical trials to reduce risks for cognitive impairment, such as dementia, in Black individuals with CUD. They’ll identify how their drug use is linked to social isolation, loneliness and the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The findings could inform better policies and ways to care for this population.

Because of this project, Smiley is SDSU’s first recipient of the National Institutes of Health Racial Equity Visionary Award, which is bestowed upon fewer than a dozen researchers nationwide. Smiley earned a $5.2 million grant to advance racial equity in addiction treatment.

Smiley’s research is funded by the National Institute on Aging through the San Diego Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center for Minority Aging Research, a partnership between UCSD and SDSU.

—Melanie Patton

Fluency for the armed forces

Since 2006, SDSU has delivered research-based training programs for U.S. military personnel to develop proficiency in critical languages and cultures.

With funding from the Department of Defense, the university’s Language Acquisition Resource Center provides intensive online, in-person and hybrid courses for languages including Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Levantine, Iraqi, Modern Standard Arabic, Pashto, Persian-Farsi, Ukrainian and Russian.

LARC’s programs serve approximately 200 military students each year, improving the language skills, regional expertise and intercultural communication skills of ROTC students, enlisted personnel and current officers in the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy.

Professor Chris Brown, codirector of LARC, said, “The SDSU- LARC LTC and Project GO programs are a force multiplier for the U.S. Department of Defense. This training enhances the readiness and global interoperability of DoD personnel and, as a result, helps to make the world a safer place.”

—Cody Lee

Gongs, gamelans and gender identity

In spring 2023, the Arts Alive SDSU Discovery Series partnered with music professor Laurel Grinnell-Wilson to present Oh My Gong!, a festival of Indonesian music and performing arts that explored musical and cultural diversity.

The program showcased music and dance from East and Central Java and Bali, and featured the SDSU Javanese Gamelan Ensemble with guest dancer Weny Michelstein, Canyon Crest Academy Javanese Gamelan Ensemble, Kembang Sunda Gamelan Degung and Balinese Gamelan Merdu Kumala.

A panel discussion featuring ethnomusicologist Christina Sunardi explored concepts of gender identity and expression through the arts, especially performances in Indonesian music and dance, and how broad cultural practices and beliefs are connected to and expressed through the arts.

—Cody Lee

Accessible hearing healthcare for veterans

Nearly 1.4 million veterans received compensation for hearing loss benefits in 2022. Hearing loss can lead to negative health impacts, including cognitive decline, depression and social isolation, if not addressed.

The most commonly recommended intervention options include aural rehabilitation and the use of hearing aids and assistive listening devices.

But veterans living in rural areas may not be able to access these audiology services because audiologists are more concentrated in urban areas.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Laura Coco, an audiologist and SDSU assistant professor, is evaluating how readily rural veterans can access timely hearing health care.

During the first year of this project, Coco is looking at data from the past 10 years to examine the differences between rural and urban veterans’ use of audiology services to build evidence for the potential expansion of these important services.

—Melanie Patton

Differentiating dementia from persons living with HIV-related hearing loss

Persons living with HIV are living longer, but they’re approaching the age demographic that’s at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Fifty percent of persons living with HIV will experience cognitive impairment or memory loss from the virus. As a result, Alzheimer’s may go undetected in a significant number of older individuals in this population.

To improve the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in persons living with HIV, SDSU audiology professor Peter Torre III is working with UCSD researchers to study these patients’ balance and hearing loss with funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Why focus on hearing loss?

HIV has been shown to be associated with hearing loss, and hearing loss contributes to balance problems and a more rapid onset of dementia.

Torre and his research team at the Recreational Noise Exposure and Hearing Lab have been conducting and analyzing data from ear examinations and hearing tests for the project since 2019.

They use a novel device as a sensitive screening tool to differentiate between healthy cognition, Alzheimer’s and HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder, which is more associated with difficulties in physical coordination
like the inability to maintain balance. The tool accurately measures changes over time in ear damage, body position awareness and balance in older persons living with HIV.

—Melanie Patton