Why is mental health so important?
HIV can cause more than just physical problems. Research shows that people who are living with HIV/AIDS often have mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, or mania.
Good mental health is essential for your successful HIV treatment and for living a happy and healthy life. So it’s important for you to know that having HIV can affect your mental health—and that there are resources available to help you if you need it.
HIV and Mental Health
Before you start taking HIV medications, you need to tell your healthcare provider if you are already using psychiatric medications, because some of them may interact with your HIV meds. Antiretroviral drugs can make some mental health issues (like depression) worse—so it’s important for your provider to know this.
The virus itself can affect your mental health. Some opportunistic infections (which occur when your immune system is damaged by HIV) can affect your nervous system and can lead to changes in behavior and functioning. Some illnesses, like dementia, can be associated with advanced cases of HIV disease.
For these reasons, it is important to do a comprehensive evaluation of your mental health and well-being at the beginning of your treatment. It is also important to be open and honest with your healthcare provider about changes in the way you are thinking, or how you are feeling about yourself and life in general.
How do I know if something is wrong and how can I find help?
Almost every person faces mental health issues at some point. Major stresses—like the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of a job, or moving—can have a major impact on mental health. Having a serious illness, like HIV, can be another source of stress.
So how do you know that it’s time to get help? Sometimes, you can notice a change in yourself—and, sometimes, the people around you are the ones who notice. Some changes that might be significant include:
- Experiencing “panic attacks”
- No longer finding enjoyment in activities which usually make you happy
- Withdrawing from social interaction
- Change in memory functioning
- Sleeping too much—or being unable to sleep
- Feeling “sad” or “empty” much of the time
- Feeling guilty
- Feeling tired all the time
Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions associated with HIV. Depression can range from mild to severe, and symptoms can include many of the above feelings or behaviors. Only a mental health provider can accurately diagnose and treat depression.
If you feel that something might be different or “wrong,” it’s best to seek the help of a trained provider. While there are some signs and symptoms that clinicians use to diagnose a mental health disorder, a diagnosis is usually based on a pattern of behavior and feelings over time.
Remember, when talking to your provider, you should never feel ashamed or embarrassed to talk about your feelings. Your feelings are important and valid. All members of your treatment team should be concerned about, and respect, your feelings and be prepared to offer treatment or referral if necessary.
Mental health providers (psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, or nurses) can use many forms of treatment, including medications and/or “talk therapy.” For more information, see the National Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Topics.
Your primary healthcare provider can help you find treatment. In addition, your case manager, social worker, or nurse may be able to refer you to a mental health provider.
One of the hardest parts of having mental health issues is that you may not feel like seeking treatment or going to your appointments once you schedule them. If you are feeling this way, ask a friend or family member to help you make and keep your appointments. When you follow through, your mental health provider can help you feel better, and that can improve your chances of successful HIV treatment.
For more information, see the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration’s Find Substance Abuse and Mental Health Treatment.
- Department of Veterans Affairs - Links: Mental Health
A list of Federal and non-Federal resources designed to provide information about HIV/AIDS and mental health for veterans living with HIV.
- National Institute of Mental Health - Center for Mental Health Research on AIDS
Website dedicated to providing insight into current Federal research programs, clinical trials, and general programs dedicated to those living with HIV and mental illness.
- National Institute of Mental Health - Division of AIDS and Health and Behavior Research (DAHBR) Overview
- SAMHSA - Behavioral Health and HIV/AIDS
- National Institute of Mental Health - Health and Outreach: Mental Health Topics
- HRSA - A Guide To Primary Care For People With HIV/AIDS: Chapter 4—Mental Health Disorders (PDF)
Last revised: 06/01/2012