Alwyn Cohall

Dr. Alwyn Cohall is a professor of Sociomedical Sciences, Population and Family Health, and Pediatrics here at the Columbia University Medical Center, as well as the co-creator of BeWell, a health and wellness program for underserved youth that he established with his wife Renee. ODCI sat down with him to learn more about his work with the BeWell program in New York City Public Libraries and how students can get involved.

Please tell me about the many projects you are involved.

My background is in young adult and adolescent medicine. I primarily focus on work with high-risk adolescents, young adults, and people living with HIV.  I run a clinic for young people at the hospital for people who are living with HIV. We provide comprehensive medical and mental health services to young people. Once they come in and we get started working with them, they actually do very well. 

The other part of the work that I do is to prevent young people from getting HIV infected. We have another program that does community outreach. We go out into schools, high schools, alternative high schools, community colleges, workforce development programs, and we do educational workshops there. We also do testing for STIs and HIV. We then get folks into another clinic that we have to follow-up on the initial care that we provided in the outreach settings. We do treatment for STIs, primary care, contraception and mental health counseling. We also spend a lot of time talking with young people about PEP and PREP. 

In terms of research we’re involved with faculty both in the School of Public Health as well as the Psychiatric Institute looking at innovative strategies to engage young people in the justice system who may be at risk for STIs, HIV, and substance abuse. We’re developing intervention strategies to work with them at the Brooklyn courthouse and get them to linked to community-based resources. 

I understand that BeWell was created by you and your wife, Renee Cohall as the Health and Wellness program within BridgeUp. Can you briefly tell me about the BridgeUp program and its relationship with BeWell? 

This initiative focuses on adolescents who are in high school. The core component of it is a program called BridgeUp, which is an academic enrichment and youth development program. It’s meant to hone the academic skills of young people to prepare them for their future. The program is unique in that it is utilizing the resources of the New York Public Library. There are 5 New York Public Libraries in New York City, in both Manhattan as well as the Bronx where these young people come after school 4 days a week for tutoring and involvement in youth development projects.

We have developed a health and wellness component because we think health is really the cornerstone of all kinds of pursuits, and that If these young people are not healthy in mind, body, and soul they’re not going to be able to take as much advantage of Bridge Up as they or we would like.

We’ve had students from the Mailman School of Public Health, the School of Social Work, and the Teacher’s College who we have trained as health educators. They are integrated into the Bridge Up program, where they help tutor in academic work. They also integrate health messages on stress reduction, healthy eating, exercise, and healthy relationships, contraception- all the kinds of issues young people need to be hearing about but unfortunately may not be hearing about at school, or at home, or accurately from online sources. We want to provide them with user-friendly, health literacy level appropriate, culturally relevant information that they can utilize.

What are some of the goals envisioned for the participants?

We would like them to be armed with the appropriate information. We know health information is important but it’s not the only thing that’s going to be necessary to promote healthy behaviors. We want them to know where they can access appropriate services within the community. We also want them to have the motivation and intent to engage in health promoting behaviors. We hope that by providing information that will influence their behaviors they in turn will influence their peers and integrate what they’re doing in their community of origin. 

Why is this work important to you and your wife? (Feel free to provide examples)

My wife’s a social worker, she’s practiced with this population for many years. We developed many of these programs in collaboration.  We really see health as very integrated; it’s mental, it’s physical, and it’s composed of social determinants. We think that the only way to really build healthy and strong communities is to focus on families, young people, and enjoining community partners to collaborate and enhance outcomes for everybody. 

What qualities do you think would be most important for a health coach to possess, and how can Mailman students get involved?

They need to be passionate, dedicated, and interested in working with young people in this population. Additional talents would also be welcome. Whether they like writing, social media or photography, we will take what they have and figure out how to integrate that into programming for the participants. For example, we’ve done photo voice projects with the young people and they are very interested in working on a video about healthy relationships. 

We’re interested in having people who have about 10-15 hours a week to work with us. They can work with us during the academic year, and the program is operational during the summer as well so it could be a practicum experience. It’s very flexible but they have to be interested in this population, interested in working with young people, and they need to be unafraid to travel to the libraries in Manhattan and the Bronx. If they are particularly interested in also working with parents or are bilingual that’s terrific. 

I think it would be an incredible experience for students. A lot of times students come to Mailman because not only do they want the Mailman experience, they want the Columbia experience, or they want to be in New York but they don’t necessarily know where to go to get experiences to compliment what they are learning in the classroom. This is an opportunity to really see health promotion in action, and to be involved. 

This is one aspect that students can get involved with, but if students are interested in HIV and STIs our Project STAY Program is something that they should consider. We have health educators who are doing that work as well. If they’re interested in the justice population, LGBT youth, or working with young people in high school—we have it all. (Learn more here.)