The Role of the Psychologist in Responding to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

Psychologists, as professionals whose training is devoted to the study of human behavior, have an important role to play in designing behavioral change strategies and in framing public health responses to the AIDS epidemic. The epidemic, in turn, provides an opportunity to expand our research on behavior change, on the needs of people and families who are coping with a long-term disease, and on multicultural approaches to meeting the needs of populations affected by the AIDS epidemic. We have the opportunity to contribute the results of decades of behavioral research as well as to extend our understanding of the problems associated with initiating and maintaining behavior changes. As Margaret Chesney pointed out in an article in Health Psychology in 1993, the importance of HIV for psychology education is that it puts researchers in touch with a number of broad trends in public health: the early identification of people who engage in high-risk behaviors; rising expectations for successful behavior change programs; increases in chronic disease that require management; the shift to community and, public health perspectives; and the global scale of health problems. Kelly and other authors have pointed out that much of what psychology has contributed to our understanding of AIDS has been descriptive studies of behavioral change or, less frequently, studies of behavioral outcomes of controlled intervention trials.

According to Kelly and others, psychology, as a discipline, needs a research agenda in which psychologists take a lead role in curtailing the epidemic through increased behavioral research, accelerated community trials of promising behavior change models, trials of community-level interventions on a large scale, partnerships between HIV research and community service organizations, integrated efforts from across psychology disciplines to advance and refine HIV preventive interventions and interdisciplinary HIV prevention resources and communication mechanisms to rapidly translate research findings to community and public policy arenas. In order to conduct such research, we must prepare psychology graduate students for the theoretical and methodological challenges such an agenda entails.

Every specialty within the discipline of psychology can show students the relevance of and application of its research methods and content to problems of people living with HIV and AIDS. Psychology faculty can demonstrate for graduate students strategies for prevention and treatment that appropriately address the multicultural nature of the epidemic, ethnic and racial populations who are overrepresented in the epidemic, and groups such as gay men and persons who abuse drugs who are socially stigmatized by the majority culture.

Suggested Readings and References

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1997, December). HIV Surveillance Reports. Atlanta, GA.

  • Chesney, M. A. (1993). Health psychology in the 21st century: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome as a harbinger of things to come. Health Psychology, 12 (4), 259-268.

  • Kelly, J. A., Murphy, D. A., Sikkema, K. J., & Kalichman, S. C. (1993). Psychological interventions to prevent HIV infection are urgently needed: New priorities for Behavioral research in the second decade of AIDS. American Psychologist, 42 (10), 023-1034.

  • Kindermann, S. S., Matteo, T. M., & Morales, E. (1993). HIV Training and Perceived Competence Among Doctoral Students in Psychology. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 24b (2), 224-227