As a graduate student in the early days of the HIV epidemic, Catherine Worthington was working in the field of mental health when she began to notice the similarities between her work in mental health and HIV. “Many of the issues were the same: HIV and mental illness were both concentrated in vulnerable populations, and there was a lot of stigma,” explains Dr. Worthington. “A lot of us were pulled into HIV work because of social inequities.” While coordinating research projects during graduate school, she made connections with mentors and members of the HIV community, and these relationships have kept her working in the HIV research field ever since.
Dr. Worthington’s modus operandi is networking—connecting people and projects in the HIV community to enhance the research experience and the end results. The networks are “open and active,” she explains, “We are trying to promote, mentor, and bring together people from community, research and policy to do this work together. We really want to provide the research evidence to support communities so they can offer effective services and so that people get help in the way they need to manage or prevent HIV.”
The numerous CIHR supported groups she is involved with – including the CIHR Social Research Centre in HIV Prevention, the CIHR Centre for REACH, CIHR Canadian Trials Network, and Universities Without Walls HIV research training program – embody her philosophy of community engagement. Her recent work in collaboration with the BC REACH team, and led by people living with HIV, is examining stigma in BC as part of a larger international initiative called the People Living with HIV Stigma Index Project. The project helps people living with HIV to develop, implement, and analyse the results from a survey about issues related to stigma, and use the results as a tool for change. The BC REACH team is also working on a housing study (Positive Living, Positive Homes) supported by a CIHR HIV/AIDS Community Based Research operating grant. “Housing is health and health is housing. If you don’t have a good space to live in, you can’t manage your health well,” says Dr. Worthington.
A joint project between the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS network (CAAN) and the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario (ACCHO), funded through the CIHR Social Research Centre in HIV Prevention, works on developing a shared understanding of decolonizing methodologies. It’s the perfect example of what Dr. Worthington loves about community based research. “It has been a really exciting project because it’s been a way for a lot of people to come together around understanding what some of the issues are. For those of us who grew up with a Western mindset, decolonizing research approaches present a new way of thinking: more than just participatory research, they are about understanding the world in a totally different way,” says Dr. Worthington. “It’s a more holistic way, less individualistic, and more community led and driven.”
And on top of all of the projects she is involved with, Dr. Worthington acts as an enthusiastic mentor for future generations of HIV researchers and community partners through the Universities Without Walls training program. “My hope for the future is that we can have a vibrant community of HIV researchers and partners who have a sense that the HIV programs, services, and policies across the country are strong and the epidemic is in decline.”
The Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR), the CIHR HIV/AIDS Research Initiative, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), the CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network (CTN) and the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI) Research and Development Alliance Coordinating Office (ACO) would like to thank Dr. Worthington for her significant contributions to our understanding of HIV. Her work is part of a larger Canadian research effort that is making a difference in the lives of those affected by HIV in Canada and around the world.