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07 – HIV – AIDS and Religion

As mental health professionals, we of course don’t want to push our religion or cultural values on our clients. However, too often, we go the opposite route and completely ignore religion – even if it is important to our clients. Often times, leaders in the client’s church have no knowledge of how to provide effective support and counseling for people impacted by HIV/AIDS. Thus, simply referring a client to a pastor or to their church is typically not an ideal solution. If there is a church or religious-affiliated group that in your community that provides HIV and AIDS-related support and resources, this is of course a great support network for your client.

A common question related to all suffering, including HIV and AIDS, is why God allows this disease to occur and for suffering to take place. And there is the more individualist questions of “Why did God allow this to happen to me?” Each religion views this question somewhat differently.

Previously we reviewed aspects of traditional African belief system and how this impacts attitudes towards HIV and AIDS. In traditional African beliefs, disease is often attributed to natural causes, witchcraft, or from ancestors who are displeased. Even with natural causes, though, there is usually believed to be a source of the illness – such as someone who “sent” the disease.

Due to the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS, you might encounter a situation where it is believed that HIV and AIDS are God’s punishment for sinful behavior. In these cases, it is helpful to point out discrepancies within this logic and help provide them with their own tools to help fight these cognitive distortions.  For example,  suffering and illness are present in all people and in all aspects of life. HIV and AIDS impacts many types of people – including children and healthcare workers who have accidentally been exposed to it – a fact that can help others to understand that HIV and AIDS is not a punishment for certain types of people or for “bad” behavior.

Here are some other areas of emphasis that can help during these discussions:

  • The world is not a perfect place, people are not perfect
  • We cannot change what happened to us, but we can change what we will do about it and how we will live our lives
  • It is problematic for any religious person to “play God” in explaining the purpose of suffering or disease; this is something that everyone encounters, and which shows that it is not a punishment for only certain people

UNICEF (2003) created a guidebook for what religious leaders and do about HIV and AIDS.

Here are some strategies that they suggest for religious leaders:

■ Be proactive: Don’t wait for a crisis before approaching the congregation or wider community.

 ■ Be informed: Use this workbook and other information to learn as much as possible about HIV/AIDS.

■ Focus on specific problems and obstacles: Discover what different groups of people do, think and believe about HIV/AIDS and what might be preventing positive action

■ Use religious and spiritual teachings in a positive way: Say special prayers, use sermons and guided meditations, and quote from sacred or philosophical texts to support people and give them strength.

■ Be tactful and compassionate: Be careful not to offend, exclude or further stigmatize.

 ■ Be accurate and clear: Speak openly and honestly about the transmission of HIV, using scientific facts that are widely available, and about treatment and care of those living with HIV or AIDS.

 ■ Avoid condemnation: It only reinforces fear, denial and indifference. Explore any personal prejudices and work towards speaking about HIV/AIDS in a non-judgmental way.

 ■ Believe in the process: Be a facilitator for dialogue (help people talk about the issues and express what they want and need).

■ Propose positive solutions: Provide facts and spiritual direction and suggest what religious, material and societal support different people might need in order to prevent the spread of HIV, to live positively and to support others.

UNICEF (2003) also suggests principles of language that promotes respect:

■ Use words that are inclusive. For example, avoid the use of ‘us’ and ‘them’ when referring to non-religious people or people affected by HIV or AIDS.

■ Strive to not impose value judgements. For example, the terms ‘AIDS victim’ and ‘AIDS sufferer’ indicate powerlessness and increase stigma, whereas ‘person living with HIV or AIDS’ emphasizes life and hope. Likewise the term ‘innocent victim’ may imply that others are ‘guilty’ (just as ‘forgiveness’ implies guilt, whereas ‘reconciliation’ emphasizes the settlement of differences without blame). Avoid using the term ‘AIDS orphan’, which sets children who have lost parents to AIDS apart from other children in a negative way. ‘Children orphaned by AIDS’ is the preferred term.

■ Be clear but sensitive to language. Clear and accurate information about HIV/AIDS can save lives. However, there will invariably be reactions to certain words or phrases. Try to get the meaning across in ways that will not offend. For example, people in many societies may be uncomfortable with the word ‘sex’ but may accept terms such ‘sexual relations’ or ‘human sexuality’. If religious leaders can bring themselves to communicate openly and honestly about a subject that is difficult to talk about, others will too.

■ Be aware of the difference between the terms ‘HIV’ and ‘AIDS’. To maintain people’s trust, it is important to provide accurate information. For example, refer to ‘AIDS’ only when referring to the syndrome of illnesses caused by HIV, the virus that is transmitted from person to person.