Since 1988, Dr. Vincent Lynch has organized a large "family reunion" in the social work community. For four days in May, social workers gather at the National Conference on Social Work and HIV/AIDS to learn from each other, re-energize and rededicate themselves to one of the hardest jobs in social work.
As the longtime director of continuing education at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work, it's Lynch's responsibility to constantly gauge the needs of Boston social work professionals and provide post-graduate education opportunities that meet those needs. That's exactly how the HIV/AIDS conference was born.
"In the early years, [HIV/AIDS] was an incredibly stressful area of practice to work in," says Lynch. "Social workers' clients were dying left and right. Experiencing that kind of loss of multiple clients who were young and had a very rapid downhill trajectory through the disease was enormously stressful."
Boston social workers, overwhelmed by the severity of the problem and desperate for better information and training, urged Lynch to organize the first HIV/AIDS conference in 1988. He was amazed by the response, not only from Boston, but from social workers across the country. Still, he had "no inkling" that years later, the conference would grow to be a pillar of the profession, drawing over 500 participants and offering 120 presentations every year.
The best presentations—all from practicing social workers engaged with AIDS care at hospitals, community-based organizations and social agencies—have been compiled in four books that are some of the most effective teaching tools available on the reality and responsibility of AIDS social work.
The focus of the conference has broadened over the years from working mostly with gay men in urban communities to a more representative national population struggling with the disease.
One of the most pressing issues right now, says Lynch, is challenging the growing perception of HIV/AIDS as a chronic illness that can be successfully managed by powerful antiviral drug cocktails. Prevention and education, Lynch argues, should never be replaced by an over-reliance on medications, many of which carry unpredictable side effects.
The theme of the 2009 HIV/AIDS conference in New Orleans was planning for the future needs of social workers. Like Lynch, many of the leaders of the AIDS social work movement are reaching retirement age and are looking to "pass the baton" to the younger generation. Lynch and the rest of the social work community want to ensure that as long as this terrible disease exists, so will the HIV/AIDS conference.