Mental Health Toll on HIV/AIDS Patients increased during the Pandemic

Judy Houston and Janya Layne provide HIV resources at the AETNA Healthcare Station for the Mental Health Resource Fair at Xavier University.

Photo by Corbin Johnson

Corbin Johnson Data News Weekly Contributor

Eclipsed by other viruses and diseases, advocates hope to center HIV/AIDS victims who continue to be most vulnerable in a holiday season that has combined the trifecta spread of COVID-19, the flu, and upper respiratory infections like the Respiratory Syncytial Virus, better known as RSV. As more HIV/AIDS patients continue to isolate far longer than the average individual, health professionals say the Pandemic has taken an additional tool on the mental health of this particular group of vulnerable citizens.

“It’s troubling times we live in, nowadays,” said Judy Houston, a community analyst who works at AETNA Louisiana HealthCare Center, who held a Wellness Fair for World AIDS Day on Thursday, Dec. 1st. “HIV is a disease that can just come out of nowhere, and once you have it, your whole world comes down crashing,” Houston said.

HIV/AIDS has been a deadly force since the 1980s. It’s impact on the LGBTQ+ community had left the public in fear. While vaccines were developed, some worked, and some did not. HIV is typically contracted through sexual contact if the male partner is not wearing a condom during intercourse. They can also contract it if the other partner did not get tested before intercourse. HIV can also get transmitted through needles and other syringes, and once a person contracts it they have the disease for life.

It takes a toll on a person which causes them to have many mental health issues and chronic depression, experts said. There is no cure for the disease, and it’s not the same as AIDS. It’s a common misconception, but HIV is the virus that leads to AIDS, and when the white blood cell count drops, then someone will eventually get it. You can get treatment early to prevent from getting AIDS, but HIV will always remain in a person’s body.

According to UNAIDS Studies across 38 countries, 15-percent of adults and 25-percent of adolescents living with HIV have reported depression or feeling overwhelmed.

“HIV affects young people the most because they’re the ones who are sexually active at most times, and they have it worse,” Houston said.

Identifying mental health issues in people living with HIV is critical because it goes either untreated or undiagnosed. People never want to reveal their psychological state to healthcare workers because they are afraid of being discriminated.

“I’ve dealt with many people who were afraid to take HIV tests,” said Janya Layne, a marketing analyst and healthcare worker at AETNA. “Our company offers free testing on STI and HIV testing, and since the Pandemic we’ve had many people who were nervous to take tests because they thought we would judge them,” she said.

Patients are twice as likely to have depression compared to those without HIV. Diagnoses also increase risks of anxiety and cognitive disorders.

“HIV is something you never joke around with,” said Dr. Warren H. Johnson, a Podiatrist who specializes in foot and ankle care. “It’s sad to see people living with mental health issues and HIV because it’s always left untreated,” he said.

“They can develop chronic stress which can reduce the ability to fight the HIV and other diseases that come with it,” Johnson said.

HIV can also cause inflammation to the body according to the MHA, Mental Health America. A person’s brain will become inflamed as a result of the body’s attempt to fight the virus. This irritation will damage the brain, and its blood vessels resulting in a brain damage that you will have to deal with for a long time. Having this type of brain damage is a very big risk factor for developing a mental health issue.

The immune system will become next to be infected, and people will have an increased risk of developing other viruses such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, which also affects the brain and nervous system. These problems can then lead to a change in behavior and how people function.

“It sends you into a zone of comfortability and sends you into an emotional turmoil,” said Shayne Valentine, a junior pharmacy major at Xavier University. “Being in the medicine field and seeing what HIV has done to people is really scary,” Valentine said. “The way it affects people’s mental states and how often it gets ignored and really it breaks my heart,” he said. “Especially [for] gay people who often get it and the way they get ignored by health care workers is disgusting and something needs to change,” he added.

Treatments and therapies have come out for HIV now such as Antiretroviral Therapy, which is a combination of medicines which will improve people’s health and protect infected people who want to have sexual intercourse. This therapy helps to restore a sense of control over their health and can improve their sense of self and hope for their future, health professionals said.

“Finding activities that relieve your stress, such as exercise or other hobbies always helps,” Johnson said. “People need to remember that there are support systems that will help them and will always be there to attend to their needs,” he said.

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