HIV & mental health

Depression and anxiety were common problems for the people we interviewed. Depression affects the way you think, your feelings, behaviour and physical wellbeing. Depressed people can feel sad, lose interest in life and lack energy. They may also feel guilty and worthless, lack confidence, have poor concentration, sleep badly, feel fearful and have thoughts of suicide. A number of people pointed out that depression can creep up on you, so your friends may notice your depression before you do.

People also talked about other problems including grief, loneliness, insomnia, isolation, manic-depression, phobias (e.g. of leaving the house), panic attacks and being suicidal. 

The World Health Organisation says that mental health is: 'A state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.' (May 2017) Mental health problems involve the lack or loss of these abilities. Nearly everyone we talked to faced such issues at one time or another and many said there should be no shame in having an emotional problem.

Why people have problems feeling good

Even if people could not understand their problems at the time, they usually gave reasons for their difficulties. Some people had a family history of emotional problems and most people's stories described how life problems affected their well-being. When problems multiplied or seemed overwhelming, their health could suffer. One man said, 'I mean I just cracked up. I just found I had too much stress for too long, from too many sources.' 

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People talked about a number of different things that made them feel depressed or anxious including:

  • Being diagnosed with HIV
  • Physical illness and side effects of drugs
  • The difficulties of managing life with HIV
  • Loss of family, friends and partners (e.g. relationship break-ups)
  • Problems with growing up and dysfunction in the family
  • Dealing with sexuality issues including homophobia and 'coming out'
  • Problems with immigration
  • Low self-esteem
  • Money problems
  • Poor housing and physical environments
  • Winter
  • Dealing with aspects of getting older
  • Isolation and lack of meaningful social activities
  • Feeling different and not 'fitting in'
  • When drug or alcohol use changes from being recreational to a way of dealing with life's problems.

Compared to white people born in the UK, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds often face more pressures. Black Africans we spoke to had a range of extraordinary pressures to deal with including asylum seeking, financial problems, difficulties in getting work and cultural differences.

It is more difficult to look after yourself when you have a mental health problem. Many people also thought that too much stress was not good for your immune system once you had HIV. While some people found it hard to ask for help, people frequently needed help to overcome their emotional difficulties.

Who can help?

Either the GP or the HIV doctor is a good place to start. Doctors can prescribe medication for mental health problems (e.g. an antidepressant), discuss options available, mobilise more support within the health system (e.g. psychiatrists), sign a person off work, and some have good counselling skills. A range of other professionals can also help. For instance, HIV clinics and hospitals usually have counsellors, nurses and social workers available in who can help.

What can you do?

People find their own way of dealing with their emotional problems: there is no one right way. While there are many professionals and people who can help along the way, you have to do a lot of the work yourself. The good news though is that for conditions like depression, people do tend to recover, even if things seem very bad at the time.

Apart from getting good treatment for HIV and so feeling better physically, people mentioned several other things that helped them:

  • Talking about your problems with friends, family or professionals
  • Getting out of the house, socialising and being more active
  • Joining a support group
  • Exercise (research shows that exercise can combat depression)
  • Avoiding the use of alcohol and drugs to deal with problems
  • Prayer
  • Doing voluntary work
  • Focusing the mind on more positive things
  • Complementary approaches to health e.g. acupuncture, yoga, meditation
  • Personal development courses and self-help books
  • Working through grief

Last reviewed May 2017.

Last updated January 2013.


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