HIV and Mental Health
- Mental health refers to a person's overall emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Good mental health helps people make healthy choices, reach personal goals, develop healthy relationships, and cope with stress.
- For people with HIV, taking care of both physical and mental health are important.
- People with HIV have a higher risk for some mental health conditions than people who do not have HIV.
- Mental health conditions are treatable, and people with mental health problems can recover.
What is mental health?
Mental health refers to a person's overall emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health affects how people think, feel, and act. Good mental health helps people make healthy choices, reach personal goals, develop healthy relationships, and cope with stress.
Poor mental health means people find it difficult to manage how they feel, think, act, or cope with stress. Poor mental health is not the same as mental illness. Mental illnesses are mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders that may not result in any impairment or may result to mild, moderate, or severe impairment that may limit or interfere with function in one or more areas of life. Mental illnesses include many different conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
A person can have poor mental health and not have a diagnosed mental illness. Likewise, a person with a mental illness can still enjoy mental well-being.
If you are living with HIV, it is important to take care of both your physical health and your mental health.
Are people with HIV at risk for mental health conditions?
Anyone can have mental health problems. Mental health conditions are common in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2019, about one in five American adults experienced a mental health issue.
People with HIV are at high risk of some mental health conditions because of the stress associated with living with HIV. For example, people living with HIV are twice as likely to have depression as people who do not have HIV.
It is important to remember that mental health conditions are treatable and that people who have mental health problems can recover.
What can cause mental health problems in people with HIV?
The following factors can increase the risk of mental health problems in anyone:
- Major life changes, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job
- Negative life experiences, such as abuse or trauma
- Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry
- A family history of mental health problems
In addition to these factors, the stress of having a serious medical illness or condition, like HIV, may also negatively affect a person's mental health. Situations that can contribute to mental health problems in people with HIV include:
- Difficulty in telling others about an HIV diagnosis
- Stigma and discrimination associated with HIV
- Loss of social support and isolation
- Difficulty in getting mental health services
In people with HIV, HIV infection and related opportunistic infections can affect the brain and the rest of the nervous system. This may lead to changes in how a person thinks and behaves. In addition, some medicines used to treat HIV may have side effects that affect a person's mental health.
What are the warning signs of a mental health problem?
Changes in how a person feels or acts can be a warning sign of a mental health problem. For example, potential signs of depression include:
- Losing interest in activities that are usually enjoyable
- Experiencing persistent sadness or feeling empty
- Feeling anxious or stressed
- Having suicidal thoughts
If you have any signs of a mental health problem, it is important to get help.
What should people with HIV do if they need help for a mental health problem?
People with HIV can talk to their health care provider about how they are feeling. They can also tell their health care providers if they are having any problems with drugs or alcohol.
Health care providers will consider whether any HIV medicines may be affecting the person’s mental health. They can also help people with HIV find a mental health care provider, such as a psychiatrist or therapist.
Here are additional ways that people with HIV can improve their mental health:
- Join a support group.
- Try meditation, yoga, or deep breathing to relax.
- Get enough sleep, eat healthy meals, and stay physically active.
To find mental health treatment services, use these resources from NIMH and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
This fact sheet is based on information from the following sources:
From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
From the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
Also see the HIV Source collection of HIV links and resources.