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Occupational Exposure...In Prison?

Aug 22, 2005

Hi Dr. Bob,

I have a question that's sort of a spin on the occupational exposure issue. Usually it seems that transmission of HIV through occupational exposure means needlesticks/contact with blood in a medical setting. My question is, do you have any data, or know of any confirmed cases, of professionals being infected with HIV in a prison or mental health facility?

The reason I ask: I am a first-year doctoral student in psychology, and all my life I've had a tremendous desire to study violent behavior. Now that I've started school, I feel I have a unique opportunity to do this, one I may never have again - we have access to jails, youth detention centers, etc. This would be great, except for one major issue: I have an anxiety disorder that often manifests as an irrational fear of contracting HIV. I've worked diligently on this with my own therapist, but I'm currently working in a community mental-health facility where patients have been known to kick, scratch, bite, claw, etc., and I know if something like that were to happen to me, I'd be crippled with anxiety until I could get tested. Likewise, if I were to study violent offenders in a prison setting, and one of them attacked me, I'd probably have a nervous breakdown. The thing is, Doc, my disorder has limited my life incredibly up to this point. Fortunately, though, I dealt with it enough to get into grad school, and now I want to make the most of my experience there. I believe I'd be very good as a forensic psychologist, and I'm ashamed and frustrated that, once again, my disorder could wind up not only limiting me, but possibly even determining my career path. So I just thought I'd try to find out as much information as I possibly could, and see how likely it would be that I, a female mental-health professional, might be attacked and come into contact with HIV-infected blood in a prison or other similar setting.

This is something really important to me. I've cried about my disorder so often it's a joke, and I find it ironic that my anxiety has not only led me to the doorstep of my career (since I'm terrified of everything, I've been driven to want to know "why" there are violent people in the world), but at the same time it's threatening to destroy that dream, all for a reason that seems like it should be no reason at all.

Thanks, Doc, for reading this and for being you.


Response from Dr. Frascino

Hi Stacie,

You can be a forensic psychologist without placing yourself at risk for bodily harm or HIV infection. However, if you are drawn to the study of "violent behavior" and yet are "terrified of everything," you really need to continue working with your own therapist to resolve this conflict. Since you are still in your first year of your doctoral program, you should have ample time to find a solution that will address your career goals without compromising your health (mental or physical).

Good luck.

Dr. Bob

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