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Understanding the Relationship Between HIV and Mental Health

Learn about the complicated relationship between HIV and mental health, and how mental health can impact treatment.

A man sits alone in a dark room. Many people with HIV struggle with the mental burden of living with a chronic illness.

Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety are prevalent among people with HIV. The relationship between HIV and mental health is complex. A disorder like depression may be triggered by an HIV diagnosis, or a person with a history of depression may experience a relapse or worsening of symptoms following a diagnosis. Anxiety and depression may be a side effect of medications used to treat HIV. Medications used to treat HIV may also have drug interactions with medications a person is prescribed to manage disorders like anxiety and depression. HIV infections may also cause cognitive and neurological symptoms, such as changes in mood, memory, and motor function.

A manageable condition

It is important to understand that HIV is a manageable condition. A person with HIV will be treated with antiretroviral therapy (ART), medications that disrupt the lifecycle of HIV. While these medications do not cure the virus, they do drive the viral load (the amount of the virus present in the body) down to undetectable levels. This allows the immune system to recover. It also allows a person with HIV to have a near-normal lifespan, with minimal chances of transmitting the virus to others.

Adherence

The benefits of HIV treatment depend on adhering to the treatment plan, which involves taking medications daily for the rest of a person’s life. When adherence slips, it becomes easier for the virus to change form. If this occurs, treatments can become less effective or stop working, and the infection can progress.

Mental health can be a serious obstacle when treating HIV. People who are affected by mental health disorders like depression have a lower adherence to treatment (it is worth noting that this is true of HIV as well as other chronic health conditions). It is important for anyone with HIV—as well as their loved ones—to understand the signs and symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, frustration, anger, irritability, hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, feeling empty, or other negative emotions.
  • Loss of interest in activities, friends, and social life.
  • Problems with concentration, memory, or making decisions.
  • Changes in sleep, energy levels, and eating habits.
  • Suicidal thoughts, or thoughts about death.
  • Headaches, cramps, pain, or digestive issues.

HAND

Patients and caregivers should also be aware that HIV infections can cause a number of neurological and cognitive impairments. These are referred to as “HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders” or HAND, and can include changes in thinking, emotions, memory, and motor function.

Getting help

If you or your loved one is experiencing any symptoms of depression, or any changes in mood, motor function, memory, or cognitive ability, it is important to see your healthcare provider to identify and address the cause. Being diagnosed with a chronic illness like HIV is a life-altering experience, one that can result in a wide-range of emotional responses. Fortunately, there are effective treatments for both HIV and depression, and many people affected by these conditions are able to live long, fulfilling lives.

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