How to Become an HIV Counselor
HIV Counselors Educate to Help Prevent the Spread of the Disease
HIV Counselors Focus on Education and Prevention
Although some people mistakenly think HIV is old news, it is still very much a health condition requiring attention and understanding. As HIV awareness has grown in the medical field, new careers have been created to meet the needs of those who live with the condition or who need education about avoiding exposure.
A rewarding way to work in this field is through becoming an HIV counselor. These professionals work with those who are infected and their family members to help inform them of infection control and how to protect those who live with the person who has the virus.
They also work with high-risk populations and others as educators and to give advice about resources in the community. Finally, they provide information to the general public to raise awareness about the risks of becoming infected and how to avoid exposure and transmission.
HIV counselors need training in various areas, though, to do their jobs right.
National HIV and Counseling and Testing Event (in Lowell, MA)
Jobs for HIV Counselors
HIV counselors can be employed in a variety of types of organizations and settings. Some examples include:
Colleges and Universities: Institutions with large populations or with a high percentage of at-risk students will likely have HIV counselors available (or referral arrangements) through student health centers or other counseling offices.
AIDS Services Centers: Most large cities have AIDS resource services available (and some have several resource operations). Many are non-profit, but some are government funded. All are available to provide education about prevention, living with HIV and AIDS, referral services for health care and other social services support.
Public School Systems: Some public school systems may provide HIV counselors in communities where there are higher risks of exposure. Counselors in these settings might offer group education sessions as well as, or in lieu of one-on-one, ongoing support.
Medical Offices: Large clinic systems may have HIV counselors available (or persons who are trained in this area in addition to another position they may hold).
Drug Research Firms: Firms that do outsourced research work for pharmaceutical companies often test for HIV as part of the screening process. Persons who test positive are informed privately (this can be by a physician) and offered referral information about community resources (which can be by someone with a degree or training in HIV counseling).
HIV Intervention and Outreach Services: Many communities have outreach services to help educate and prevent the spread of HIV. These can include mobile vans that do on-site testing, visiting places where social encounters can lead to unprotected sex, and other programs that are uniquely designed to address needs in a specific community. HIV counselors are part of the teams providing these services.
Public Health Clinics: These facilities generally provide testing for HIV, and offer pretesting as well as post-testing counseling to those who use their services.
Third-World Countries: There are opportunities for humanitarian work to help educate at-risk populations in countries where HIV infection and AIDS occurs in epidemic numbers. These can be volunteer positions or paid assignments.
HIV Testing and Counseling
Requirements and Training for HIV Counselors
The training and requirements for doing HIV counseling in your community, state or country can vary with the specific job you might seek and the guidelines imposed by the government. To find out the requirements in your area, check with the types of services listed above (a good place to start is the local AIDS Services organization, if one is available).
Ask to speak to someone who either does counseling or who manages the operation; they will know what requirements exist for training and, in some cases, certification in HIV Counseling.
Many state health departments offer training programs (or will refer you to places that offer training that meets local requirements). Some medical schools offer training programs as well. The list of training options and criteria is too varied to include in one article.
An example of the type of education that might be needed can be found through the AIDS Health Project in San Francisco, which lists some information on basic training, advanced training and continuing education for those who wish to become HIV Counselors.
Your local government will have information on the number of hours or days of training needed for the levels of certification and opportunities to take online courses. The guidelines in each state (or country) change as new information is available, so it is best to check for current requirements in your area.
HIV Counseling through Desmond Tutu Foundation
What Makes a Good HIV Counselor?
HIV counselors address many sensitive topics when talking with clients, including sexual orientation, history of drug use, high-risk behaviors, trust, sexual activity, family and relationships issues and more.
A good HIV counselor should have most, if not all, of the following qualities and skills:
- Ability to communicate well
- Sensitivity to emotions
- Desire to help others
- Non-judgmental attitude
- Desire to keep learning
These are just a few of the qualities you can bring to the career. Continuing education is important, since treatment options change almost every year, and resources can change in your community.
Video: When HIV Becomes AIDS
HIV vs AIDS
In addition to providing basic education and prevention information about HIV infection, counselors are often trained to help recognize when HIV may have advanced to AIDS.
This training helps counselors refer clients to appropriate medical care for declining immune systems or opportunistic infections. An opportunistic infection is one that attacks a compromised immune system; it is generally one that a healthy immune system might resist, whereas someone with a weakened immune system is more vulnerable.
The videos on this page show a few ways HIV counselors help individuals who are infected, are at risk of infection or who live with someone who is infected, as well as information on when HIV becomes AIDS.