What you need to know:
- Many patients have had to cope with stigma and discrimination which can lead to a feeling of isolation and a loss of control.
- When one partner is diagnosed with HIV, it can lead to a crisis in their relationship.
- There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the mental illness associated with HIV/AIDS.
Besides the physical effects of living with HIV, significant psychological consequences that come with the virus can impact a person’s quality of life.
Many patients have had to cope with stigma and discrimination which can lead to a feeling of isolation and a loss of control. As a result, people living with HIV may experience anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
HIV and trauma
When someone is diagnosed with HIV, their life changes. This can lead to feelings of trauma, defined as "a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that can have long-term effects on an individual's psychological health." People who have experienced trauma often relive the event repeatedly in their minds, which can lead to symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts.
Medical care providers usually provide counseling for people living with HIV. However, some people struggle to come to terms with their diagnosis and the associated psychological consequences.
HIV and the central nervous system
HIV attacks the body's immune system, including the central nervous system. By infecting cells called glia (non-neuronal cells (i.e. not nerves) of the brain and nervous system), HIV compromises the function of nerve cells (neurons) rather than directly attacking them. This can lead to several neurological problems, including confusion, forgetfulness, pain, seizure, vision loss, stroke, and even coma.
People living with HIV are not the only ones affected by this disease. Their families and friends also suffer, often silently. As a result, they may feel helpless and struggle to cope. For example, when one partner is diagnosed with HIV, it can lead to a crisis in their relationship. They may have difficulty discussing the new diagnosis and dealing with the accompanying changes.
For people who are very close, such as parents or children, having someone they love diagnosed with HIV/AIDS is incredibly difficult. There are many psychological struggles of living with HIV/AIDS that can impact the quality of life for people who are infected and their families.
Dealing with mental health problems
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with the mental illness associated with HIV/AIDS. However, there are a few things that can help:
Seek professional help
There are three types of professionals who can help with mental health issues.
- A therapist specialising in collaborating with people living with HIV can provide much-needed support and guidance. Couples and families are guided to communicate with each other, manage difficult situations, and improve their family life.
- A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe medication for mental health issues. A psychiatrist is both a therapist and prescriber of medicine, which some people prefer because it gives them one person to talk to instead of two separate appointments.
- Lastly, psychologists are not medical doctors, but they do have special training in helping people deal with emotional issues. They cannot prescribe medication, but they can offer counseling and advice.
It is imperative to speak with your doctor about any concerns related to your mental health if you are living with HIV/AIDS.
People find it helpful to talk to other people living with HIV/AIDS. Often, groups are available through local hospitals, community centres, or online forums. These groups can provide support from people who understand what you are going through.
It is essential to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. This includes eating a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and taking time for yourself to relax and de-stress.
There are ways to relieve stress and anxiety such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises.
Taking your prescribed medication will help alleviate many mental health issues associated with HIV/AIDS.
However, if you struggle to cope, it is essential to reach out for help. Many people are willing and able to support.