Keith Green had already been working in the HIV field for years -- and had been living with HIV since 1994 -- when he was first interviewed for TheBody.com's African-American HIV/AIDS Resource Center in 2006. Keith's compassion, sense of humor and thoughtful take on many issues have not only been an illuminating addition to TheBody.com. He has also reached many through his outreach work in Chicago and his writings in Test Positive Aware Network's publication Positively Aware, for which he'd served as associate editor from 2005 to 2009. In 2008, Keith's interest in exploring the intersections between HIV and mental health concerns, particularly in marginalized communities, led him to a graduate program in social work. Now, with master's degree firmly in hand, Keith is helping to change the face of research as a project director for two HIV prevention studies targeting young men of color who have sex with men. I had the pleasure of checking in with Keith again recently about his prior goals, his current path -- and even a few thoughts on relationships. In the weeks since Keith and I spoke, he accepted an exciting new role as director of federal affairs at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, though he'll continue to be involved in the studies about which he speaks in this interview.
Keith, welcome back to TheBody.com!
Thank you; it's good to be back.
What's new in your life?
Currently, I am the project director for two prevention studies being conducted through Stroger Hospital of Cook County. I'm back in Chicago. I graduated from the University of WisconsinMadison, with my master's in social work. I went into that program wanting to get a better understanding of mental health. The funny thing about getting a better understanding of mental health is that oftentimes we only focus on deficits, or on severe, persistent mental health concerns; we don't necessarily focus on it with respect to people's day-to-day mental well-being. For example, I may not meet the criteria for depression, but I could very well be depressed. And those people, I think, fall through the gaps.
Having worked in HIV for a little bit of time, I was beginning to have these ideas, or theories, or hypotheses, about the impact that unaddressed and undiagnosed mental health concerns have on HIV prevalence and incidence, particularly in communities of color. So I went into the program in Madison wanting to get a better understanding of mental health; a better understanding of policy around mental health concerns, and their treatment; and to be clear that I also recognize a population that is oftentimes overlooked in the conversation of mental health.
I did that, and I did it extremely. My field practicum for my master's program was in the State Mental Health Institute, where I worked on two units. One unit was for men who had committed crimes but who had been found not guilty by reason of mental defect. It was a minimum-security unit that was beginning to transition these men back out into their communities. In the other one, I worked with adolescent young men who had been deemed dangerous to themselves, or to others, and were on 72-hour holds, or extended holds, depending on what the situation was, so that further evaluation could be done. I kind of went in headstrong, and really, quite honestly, enjoyed that work. It was very humbling.
There was this guy who had a psychotic break: He ordered services from a call girl, and then he killed her, dismembered her and disposed of her body in a trash bin behind his house. I did not know any of this about this man when I first walked onto the floor and first shook his hand. So, to later find out these things about this man, it dawned on me that that is something that he did. That is something that happened, but he is as worthy of respect and dignity, and of me representing him as a social worker, as anyone else I may encounter.
I came to find out that this guy had suffered severe abuse as an infant, from birth until 2 years old, when he was taken out of his home. Just this unfortunate unfolding of events, but it really humbled me, and challenged me to connect with people on a different level, even now that I've graduated and come back home to Chicago.
I don't think that my focus changed; I think my perspective on how to address the issue changed, or broadened, in that I think that we have to look at more social and structural interventions that validate us as human beings who are worthy of dignity and respect.
Have you come across any HIV prevention interventions that incorporate the kind of approach you're talking about? Do you know of any such programs?
Yes. I don't think we always look at them as HIV prevention interventions, but they are, in fact, HIV prevention interventions. So, for instance, repealing "don't ask, don't tell." Because that, structurally, does not allow for me to be discriminated against. And we know the impact that discrimination and segregation can have on a person's mental well-being, which impacts their risks for HIV, which impacts their risks for not being adherent to medications or not even engaging in antiretroviral therapy at all. So something as big as that, as broad as that, has very large implications.