Are Patients Living With HIV More Likely to Experience Mental Health Struggles?

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For Mental Health Awareness Month, we here at Health Services of North Texas felt it was important to return to our roots for a moment and talk about the intersection of mental health and HIV.

It’s common for health issues to cause or coexist with things like depression and anxiety, but a diagnosis of something like HIV can feel like a true punch to the gut. Today, HSNT’s Dr. Arlene Hudson wants to provide you with guidance on living healthy and strong with HIV while taking care of your mental health.

The First Visit

Living with HIV can be a heavy burden for any person, no matter their background. The stigma and fear surrounding an HIV diagnosis is still very strong even decades later from the start of the HIV epidemic, and this can cause some people to isolate themselves from their friends and family, which is the opposite of what people with HIV need.

“The first visit is always really nerve-wracking for patients,” says Dr. Hudson, “so I do my best to explain that we have great treatments, and if they stay in care, they’re going to have normal, healthy lives. HIV is no longer a death sentence. But some patients really need a prolonged time of reassurance, and in that time a lot of people pull away from others – they don’t want to tell their family or friends, so they become more isolated. I think it’s important to remember that HIV and mental health go hand in hand that we focus on them both, so that we can get the best possible outcome for our patients.”

What Should I Look Out for If I Think I’m Experiencing Mental Health Problems?

Common symptoms of things like depression and anxiety are things that humans feel naturally – the difference is when you have these feelings persistently, most of the day and every day. These symptoms include:

• A persistent low mood 

• Feelings of hopelessness

• Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much

• Difficulty concentrating

• Suicidal thoughts

Mental illnesses like depression can drag a person down into “thought traps,” where it seems like it’s pointless to do anything to improve their situation, which in turn makes their situation worse. Ideally, behavioral health providers would come in to help lift you out of those thought traps long enough for you to land back on your feet and take steps to get better. 

How Can I Keep a Healthy Mindset While Living with HIV?

Mental health is similar to physical health in that it’s easier to treat the earlier you catch the problem. Recognizing that you’re going through these tough feelings is the first step, and from there you can do a variety of things that continue the process of healing.

• Don’t isolate yourself – talk to family and friends about what’s going on

• Join a support group of people going through a similar experience

• Exercise regularly – this will lift your mood and energy level, improve your sleep, and can provide a distraction from negative thoughts

• Get professional help – HIV is too big to go through alone, and professionals like Dr. Hudson can guide you through the medication part of living with HIV

Taking Your Medicine

As we’ve covered, the mental health aspect of living with HIV is very important but staying on top of your medication regimen is something else that you need to make sure to speak with a healthcare professional about. Patients with both HIV and depression do better overall when their depression is treated because it makes it easier to focus on their physical health care needs, like taking their medication. HIV medication can sometimes cause or intensify sympto ms of depression or anxiety, so it’s important to have that conversation and make sure you’re taking what’s best. 

“The one thing I really try to help my patients with is to make sure that the medicines I’m using to treat them don’t make their mental health worse,” says Dr. Hudson. “For example, the first single-tablet regimen for HIV that was created was called Atripla, and Atripla was a great drug to stop HIV from a medical standpoint, but doctors found that patients had bad dreams and increased rates of depression. These days we have better regimens, and we don’t use Efavirenz almost ever, so I do try to modernize my patients’ therapy, so that I know I’m not making their mental health worse.”

Mental health is a truly critical part of everyone’s well-being, and it often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. However, things like Mental Health Awareness Month are great ways for all of us to spread the message and learn about it ourselves. HIV and mental health intersect in a very real way, and the providers here at HSNT are here for you if you’re living with HIV and need help.