Why Is it Important to Educate Psychology Graduate Students About HIV/AIDS?

This information has been prepared for psychologists who have the responsibility of teaching tomorrow’s psychologists. Many of you who have been involved in the response to HIV since the beginning of the epidemic, and have already incorporated HIV education into your graduate courses. For you, this will provide resources that will supplement materials you may already be using. For those of you who may not have been directly involved in teaching students about HIV/AIDS, this information is intended to introduce you to the importance of preparing psychology graduate students to conduct research on HIV/AIDS, carry out prevention programs, or treat clients and their families.

Both the magnitude and the nature of the HIV epidemic necessitate training graduate students to understand the vital contribution of psychology to the management and elimination of the epidemic. Already, an estimated 1.5 million people in the United States, and 30 million people globally are infected with the HIV virus. This epidemic cannot, and should not, be handled by medical personnel alone.

As an infectious, chronic disease, HIV/AIDS requires behavioral management to maintain the health of the person with the disease and to protect others from transmission. For example, cognitive-behavioral strategies for promoting prevention and managing the course of the disease have been effective. These techniques can easily be incorporated and discussed during a cognitive behavioral psychology course.

As a disease that affects many different, often socially stigmatized populations, the prevention and treatment of HIV requires an understanding of different cultures and of culturally sensitive and appropriate approaches to prevention and treatment. Management of the epidemic, as well as treatment of individual patients, requires the involvement of behavioral scientists who are trained to study individuals and their interactions within their environments.

At all stages of HIV, the application of behavioral science theory and practice have been beneficial. The involvement of psychologists in the public health arena has already had some positive results in the approaches to prevention and treatment. For example, research has shown that providing counseling prior to and after HIV testing is associated with decreases in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. As the public health response focused on primary prevention, it became clear that behavior change was the only primary prevention strategy. As a result, theoretical and applied research on behavior change, including drug abuse prevention and reduction of high-risk sexual behaviors has become of prevention efforts. Behavioral specialists have a responsibility to the public, and to their students, for sharing the knowledge of our discipline with others. Many psychologists have already been involved in developing prevention and treatment strategies based on behavioral theories and in formulating public policies that are informed by our knowledge of human behavior. Creating a future that continues development of effective prevention and treatment strategies is necessary to continue making progress in the fight against HIV transmission.

Future psychologists must be trained to conduct research, to treat clients, and to contribute to future public health approaches to ending the epidemic. Incorporating case studies including HIV topics, HIV related materials into existing courses, and having discussions about best practices and evidence based techniques into the classroom will help create a more competent field, a field that can effectively treat their clients.