If you are hospitalized and do not have a therapist tell your physician or one of the nurses that you'd like to speak with a mental health professional. Today, most nurses have undergone some training in counseling, and many have gone on to receive post-graduate training in counseling and/or therapy. Thus one of the nurses who is already involved in your care may be skilled in counseling, and willing to spend some time with you talking about whatever you feel the need to discuss.
Another option is to ask to see a psychiatrist or social worker. All hospitals have these professionals on staff. Most of the major hospitals that treat large numbers of persons with AIDS usually have specific psychiatrists and/or social workers who are specialists in working with persons with AIDS. There may even be specific groups for inpatients with AIDS run at the hospital that you could attend.
The hospital chaplain may be another possibility of a professional who can provide you with
counseling. While it is understandable to be skeptical of how useful priests, nuns, ministers or
rabbis might be to persons with AIDS who are openly gay or who have been drug injectors, there
is a growing number of gay sensitive and openly gay clergy who have been well trained in pastoral
counseling. Some hospitals like New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center have even hired
specific chaplains who are not homophobic, drug phobic, or AIDS phobic to provide an
invaluable component to psychosocial and spiritual support to people with AIDS.
Finding the correct therapist can be confusing and daunting even when the issues are not as urgent and crucial as living with AIDS or HIV. The best place to begin is to ask someone whom you
trust if they can suggest a therapist for you. One logical person to ask for a referral to a therapist
who is experienced in working with persons living with AIDS is your physician. A friend or
member of your support group who is in therapy and who talks highly about his or her therapist,
or who you have observed growing and adjusting to their condition in ways that you feel are
positive, is another good source to ask for the name of a therapist. Since many mental health
professionals volunteer at AIDS service organizations it is common for the organization to have
compiled a list of therapists it feels confident referring people with HIV or AIDS to.
In addition, if you are seeking therapy while you are still employed and can afford a particular fee, how negotiable will the fee be if you ever have to go on disability or public assistance? It would certainly not be in your best interest to begin therapy, feel that you are doing important work in your treatment only to find out if and when you are unable to continue to pay the original fee that
this therapist will not continue to work with you at a reduced fee. This is very important to
discuss during the initial phone call or initial visit. If you are not comfortable with how the
therapist responds to your questions, or if he or she does not state very categorically that there is
the potential for flexibility in the event of an emergency situation, then you may not wish to even
schedule an initial appointment with this person.
You should also ask whether or not the person is licensed. (This is not to suggest that simply because a therapist has a graduate degree or is licensed by the state that he or she is a good therapist or the right one for you. There are many excellent people practicing psychotherapy who do not have a PhD, MSW, MD or RN, and many incompetent therapists with degrees.) Be prepared that a professional who is licensed will usually charge a higher fee than one who is not licensed.
You will want to inquire about how long the sessions are. (Currently most psychotherapy
sessions run forty five, fifty or sixty minutes.) You should also ask how frequently does the
therapist expect to see you. Usually therapy begins with once a week sessions, but in crisis
situations more frequent sessions can be useful and appropriate. Will the therapist be available to
you by phone if there is a crisis? Will he or she have some flexibility in their schedule so if you
need an additional session they can schedule it? Also if a medical emergency arises that prevents you from keeping your appointment, does he or she have the flexibility to reschedule your
appointment? What is the therapist's cancellation policy regarding payment for missed
appointments? Also if you are unable to get to his or her office will they do hospital or home
visits or telephone sessions? I believe that these are all important concerns that need to be
discussed before treatment begins so that you and the therapist can each decide if the fit or
chemistry is correct between you.
Once you feel satisfied over the phone then you will need to schedule an initial appointment. During the initial session it is useful to be evaluating what goes on. Do you feel comfortable with this person? Is he or she someone that you feel you would grow to increasingly trust as time went on? Is he or she asking you the kinds of questions that indicate to you that they understand what is going on with you, and will be able to be useful to you during this period of your life? How comfortable was the therapist with the kinds of questions you asked? Did he or she become defensive or welcome and value your inquiries about how the business aspects of therapy will be conducted? In other words did he or she communicate to you that the two of you would need to become partners in the process of helping you?
When beginning therapy it is a good idea to ask the therapist what his or her vacation schedule is. You may or may not want to begin therapy with someone who is planning to be away for several
weeks immediately following the start of treatment.
Similarly you may wish to question any perspective therapist about his or her views on HIV or AIDS. If you are a disciple of Louise Hay, the Course in Miracles or other New Age philosophies than it will be important to you to begin work with someone who is at least familiar with this way of thinking and supportive of it. If you believe that AIDS is not necessarily always a fatal illness, and you have not had any medical crises for awhile, than it would probably not be a good idea to begin therapy with someone whose focus will be on death and dying as opposed to living with HIV/AIDS.
Do you need to know the sero-status of your therapist? Some people may not want to begin therapy with someone who is HIV sero-positive or has AIDS out of a fear that the therapist might become ill and die before the treatment is completed. A therapist does not have to experience the identical issues as his or her patients in order to be helpful to them.
It is also very important to remember that no therapist is the correct therapist for everyone. Even the most skilled and empathic therapists have patients who stopped seeing them because the patient didn't feel that they were getting the kind of help they wanted, or that they were getting better.
Starting therapy is in many ways like beginning any new intimate relationship. There needs to be some initial excitement, trust and intuitive feeling that this is a safe and nurturing place for you to be. As time goes on there should be an increasing number of tangible examples of why you trust this person and that he or she has your best interests as their priority. Don't be afraid to be a critical consumer of psychotherapy. Especially at this time in your life, taking control of how therapy begins can be a beginning for taking increasing control throughout your life.
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