Ask NCFY: Providing Support and Respect for Young People Living with HIV

A young person talks to a nurse practitioner.

Q: A youth in our shelter was just diagnosed with HIV. How can we best help her? And how can we help other young people in the program who may not understand what it means to have HIV?

A: The best way to support this young woman is to first take stock of her situation, says Latisha James, who coordinates youth programs at The Women’s Collective, a Washington, DC, organization that provides services and support to women and girls living with or at-risk for contracting HIV.

“Most people want to find youth medical care right away,” James says. “But before starting medical treatment, you want to make sure young people are ready to accept it.”

First, assess whether the young person is ready to accept the diagnosis. Signs that she’s not ready include refusing to disclose her diagnosis to her family or past partners, seeming indifferent about the diagnosis, and refusing to seek medical treatment. If she doesn’t accept the fact that she has HIV, trying to link her to care or talking about the importance of taking medication won’t be helpful, James says. She suggests providing a time and place for youth to meet with a counselor on a regular basis. If more than one young person is affected by HIV, group counseling sessions could provide peer support.

Next, assess the young person’s support system, and help her figure out who she can turn to for support. “Especially for youth, having even one person in your corner can make a world of difference,” says James. If young people have someone they can turn to for help and encouragement, they’re more likely to keep taking their medications, which can sometimes have unpleasant side effects.

Finally, assess the young person’s living situation. Does she have secure housing? If a young person doesn’t have a safe place to sleep, it’s unlikely she’ll be able to follow a doctor’s treatment plan.

To make sure all young people in your program have a sense of support, safety and respect, educate staff and other youth in the shelter about HIV and how it’s transmitted. There are still many misconceptions about HIV, and education is the best prevention against prejudice, James says. “A shelter may be the only place a young person has found to be safe, so it’s important to make sure it continues to be safe and young people aren’t ostracized,” she says.

James cautions against divulging too much information to other young people living in the shelter. “It’s confidential information, and youth need to disclose it on their own terms,” she says.

James doesn’t like identifying young people with the commonly used term “HIV positive.” They’re still the same young people with goals and hopes and dreams, she says. They just have one more challenge than others. She prefers to say someone is “living with the virus” or “living with HIV.”

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