Talking about HIV and Mental Health

Mental health issues can affect anyone. However, people living with HIV face being more affected than other groups. Individuals diagnosed with HIV may suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts. People dealing with HIV are twice as likely to be diagnosed as suffering from depression (source: National Institute of Mental Health).

What causes it?
There are many reasons why people living with HIV may be more prone to mental health issues. This could be because of the stresses linked to having HIV. Factors include the loss of social support and isolation resulting from an HIV diagnosis, managing HIV medicines or worries about the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and dealing with guilt, shame and denial. When we talk about the issues surrounding HIV, it is usually about the transmission of the virus and not life after diagnosis. In this way, a significant element of HIV treatment is being ignored.

The HIV virus itself also contributes to mental health issues. Some opportunistic infections (which result when a person’s immune system has been damaged by HIV) have an effect on the nervous system and can affect mental functioning. Other disorders, such as mild cognitive changes or disorders associated with advanced HIV, such as dementia, also affect mental health. Some medicines used to treat HIV may have side effects that could damage a person’s mental health. Antiretroviral medicines can cause a variety of symptoms which could lead to mental health issues. They have also been linked to sleeplessness and vivid dreams.

Why is this an issue?
Depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders are of particular concern in individuals with HIV as they can lead to not taking medication, higher viral load, lower CD4 counts and a greater chance of developing drug-resistant strains of HIV. Therefore, it is a major problem.

How can we deal with it?
These issues regarding the link between mental health issues and HIV mean it is important for people living with HIV to be able to access support. There isn’t a lot of resources online regarding the links between mental health issues and HIV but organisations, support helplines and healthcare professional should be able to provide help.

It is important than to remember that if you are living with HIV, you are not alone. Living with the condition may be overwhelming, but it is essential to prioritise your mental health and seek help if needed.

There is still a lot of work that needs to be done regarding the link between mental health issues and HIV, however, if you are an individual living with HIV, looking after your mental health is important. Take steps to look after your emotional wellbeing. Do regular exercise, ensure you have adequate sleep and maintain healthy nutrition. And remember- you deserve to be happy and you deserve to be well.