There is a connection between HIV and mental health

Persons with HIV may develop mental health issues and people with psychiatric illnesses are at risk of HIV
There is a connection between HIV and mental health

“ I was pregnant with my second child when I was tested for HIV. I tested positive. The gynecologist told my husband and father, and my husband got himself tested as well. He was told that all of us have three months to live, which caused all of us great shock and panic. All I could think about at that point was my seven year old boy. My husband stopped going to work owing to the despair he felt and uprooted us. We moved back to my father’s house and he moved around different cities without a job. I lost my second child because I had not known that there were medicines I could consume to prevent infecting my child. It was a terrible loss.”

Saroja Puthran, Advocacy consultant in Karnataka Health Promotion Trust

In India, there are 21.7 lakh people who live with HIV, making it the third largest epidemic in the world ( with South Africa having the largest HIV-infected population of around 70 lakh people). HIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus targets the body’s immune system leaving the person vulnerable to serious infections and disorders.

Importance of early detection

While the symptoms of HIV differ from individual to individual, the only way to find out if a person has HIV is for them to get tested. Early detection can help the individual lead a relatively normal life with the aid of medicines. In case the infection is left undetected and is not treated for a long period of time it may progress to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

HIV and mental illness: what is the connection?

Research sheds light on the complex relationship that HIV and mental illness share. Some symptoms of certain psycho-social disabilities can put a person at a higher risk for contracting HIV. For instance, a person living with a particular psychiatric illness might engage in behavior like unprotected sex and substance abuse, both of which make a person more susceptible to getting the virus. In terms of statistics, there is an approximate of 1.7 percent of persons living with psycho-social disability who have HIV.

This connection also works the other way around. Having HIV diagnosis can lead to a range of different feelings like denial, anger and sadness that contributes to a high amount of trouble in day-to-day functioning. Despite this, it is not necessary that experiencing these feelings will lead to a clinical diagnosis for the person.

As per a review of multiple research studies, as high as 98.6 percent of persons living with HIV experience depression as one of the first symptoms. Further, approximately 25 to 36 percent of HIV diagnosed also suffer from anxiety. Psychosis can coexist as a symptom, as a result of the virus itself or due to other infections caused by a weakened immune system.

Given the incredibly high amount of painful stigma attached to HIV positive persons in society, mania has been reported as a possible reaction to learning about the diagnosis, as well as in response to taking the prescribed medication and sometimes because of the illness itself.

HIV associated dementia and neurocognitive disorders due to the virus having entered the central nervous system may also occur. Thoughts of suicide in the face of social exclusion and rejection is common.

What can you do if you have mental health issues?

If you feel that you or your loved one are at risk the first step is to visit an Integrated Counseling and Testing Centre (ICTC) nearest to you; here you can counseled and tested for HIV. These counseling centres conduct detailed intake, explain the prognosis of HIV by discussing the progress of symptoms, medication and the importance of treatment adherence. This process goes a long way in helping the person view HIV as a manageable condition.

In some cases the counselor might see it fit to refer you to a mental health professional. Even in the absence of a referral, it will still prove to be helpful to you to find an environment that is understanding and non-judgmental about your often misunderstood diagnosis.

Saroja is just one of the many people who has been able to find comfort and build up her strength by reaching out to different non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Here she could access resources in the form of valuable information and interaction with co-survivors.

These NGOs may also run support groups themselves or know of ones that comprise of individuals who have lived experience and understand what the social, psychological and physical impact of living with this infection are. They may be better equipped to help guide you and provide practical answers for how to face day-to-day struggles.

For more information on HIV in general you can visit:

Few organizations that support people with HIV are Karnataka Health Promotion Trust, Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society, ASHA Foundation, SAATHII, Naz Foundation, India HIV/ AIDS Alliance.

Hospitals that provide counselling for persons with HIV are NIMHANS, St John’s Hospital, Government Hospitals that have an Integrated Counseling and Testing Centre.

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