HIV and Mental Health

At some point in life, we tend to face a slump in our mental health. Common major stresses such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, etc, can definitely challenge our mental health. Mental health can be defined as a person’s overall well-being, in the context of emotional, psychological, and social. How you think, feel, and even act, are all affected by the state of your mental health. A person with good mental health allows him or her to make healthy decisions, the drive to achieve goals, the ability to develop stable relationships, and to cope with stress in a healthy manner. On the other hand, poor mental health affects a person’s ability to cope and manage their feelings, thoughts, actions.

Research shows that an estimated 37.6 million individuals were living with HIV in 2020. Just as what was mentioned earlier, anyone can have mental health problems. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), people with HIV are at high risk for developing mental health conditions – they are twice as likely to have depression than those who do not have HIV. 39% of individuals living with HIV had major depressive disorder (MDD), while 1 in 5 HIV-positive individuals had generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Besides that, a literature review from 2019 noted that the pervasiveness of HIV is higher among people with serious mental health issues than the general population. This is because they are more likely to experience risk factors, one which includes high risk sexual behaviors.

What causes mental health problems in people living with HIV?

Factors such as a history of abuse, trauma, family history of mental health issues, biological factors, for example, genes or brain chemistry, life stressors, such as the death of a loved one etc,  increases the risk of mental health issues in people with HIV and also anyone. Besides these factors, being diagnosed with a serious illness, like HIV, is a major source of stress which challenges a person’s well-being or worsens existing mental health conditions. A person living with HIV may find it difficult in opening up to others or even people close to them about their diagnosis of HIV due to the fear of being stigmatized or shunned, especially in the case in which HIV is strongly associated with immense stigma and discrimination. This lack of support will cause them to isolate themselves from society and reaching out to get the emotional help they desperately need. All of this can result in health inequity and affect a person’s social determinants of health. In addition, people living with HIV may experience difficulties and barriers towards managing and accessing professional medical aid. HIV and some opportunistic infections can negatively impact the brain and nervous system which leads to behavioral changes. Furthermore, certain HIV treatments, for instance, antiretroviral therapy (ART), have side effects towards mental health. Being in a poor mental or emotional state might cause the initiation of and adherence to these medications.  

It is crucial for people with HIV to inform their healthcare professional about their mental health condition, so their doctors can be aware and monitor their well-being and medications or treatments which may affect their mental health. They may also be referred to a mental health professional to discuss additional treatment options such as therapy to help the patient regain and maintain good mental health. Some additional methods that people living with HIV can practice to improve their mental health would be to join a HIV support group or mental health support group that allows them to be a safe and supportive environment. Light exercises such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing may help alleviate symptoms of depression or anxiety.

If you or someone you know is living with HIV, here are some HIV support systems available in Malaysia:

  1. PT Foundation
  2. Hospital Peer Support Programme – Malaysian AIDS Council
  3. Sarawak AIDS Concern Society
  4. KLASS Malaysia

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