HIV/AIDS crosses all fields of practice, including mental health, addictions, community development, and health care. Social work practice in this area continues to evolve, as social workers provide support to persons living with HIV/AIDS and those affected by the disease through direct counselling, treatment intervention, and social justice activities.

HIV/AIDS affects millions of individuals and families world-wide. In Canada, the rate of infection continues to rise. Those at risk include youth, women, men who have sex with men, and heterosexual men who engage in high-risk activities such as unprotected sex and sharing of needles.

While there is no cure for the disease, people are living longer with all the accompanying joys and challenges this entails. Some of these challenges include dealing with the side effects of anti-retroviral medications, coping with grief and loss, and dealing with the continued stigma of HIV/AIDS.

Social workers possess the knowledge and skills to work effectively with individuals who are living with HIV/AIDS and those affected by the disease, including family members, friends, partners, and children. Social workers bring the unique skill of working with people within the context of their environment and advocating change that best meets the needs of clients.

On an individual level, social workers provide a broad range of services and supports to those living with HIV/AIDS. Social workers are familiar with community resources such as income support bureaucracies, education/training programs and career planning, prescription drug programs and policies, short- and long-term disability programs, housing, human rights legislation, addictions services, legal services, services and resources for people who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual, and nutrition and food security. Social workers often work with those living with HIV/AIDS to navigate these systems, while empowering clients to make informed decisions affecting their health.

Social workers also provide therapy and counselling for concerns such as new diagnosis, disclosure, intimate partner violence, depression, fertility, anxiety, relationships (intimate and familial), grief and loss, and addictions. Often, they work within the context of a multidisciplinary team in providing support for those living with a chronic illness. Team members may include a nurse practitioner, physician, pharmacist, psychologist, psychiatrist, immunologist, and a representative from public health.

In the community context, social workers continue to advocate on behalf of those living with HIV/AIDS through community organization and policy development. They also provide education to reduce the incidence of HIV through harm reduction and health promotion. Social workers understand that health care is more than medical care. The twelve determinants of health, as outlined by the Public Health Agency of Canada, have an impact on a person’s overall health and well-being. These determinants include social status and income, education, and social support networks. Social workers strive to eradicate social exclusion and poverty across all fields of practice.

For additional resources and information on HIV/AIDS, refer to the CASW website at www.casw-acts.ca for links to the Canadian AIDS Society, Canadian AIDS/HIV Treatment Information Exchange, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the World Health Organization.

Prepared by: Cheryl Schultz
Cheryl Schulz (BSW, MSW, RSW) previously worked with the HIV/AIDS clinic in St. John’s, NL