AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a disease that attacks the body’s immune system, causing it to break down and making it unable to fight off infections. AIDS is caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). HIV weakens the immune system by destroying cells whose function is to combat infection and disease. AIDS is the final stage of the infection when the immune system has been severely damaged.
The virus is transmitted through sexual contact with an infected individual or through contact with blood or body fluids. Not all HIV-positive individuals will develop AIDS due to available medication now. In developing countries like ours, infection rates are quite high with widespread stigma being attached to the disease.
Being diagnosed as HIV positive can produce strong emotional reactions. Initially, there is a sense of shock and denial then fear, guilt, anger, sadness, and feelings of hopelessness. These can lead to the development of various mental health issues. HIV can also directly infect the brain causing impairment to memory and thinking.
In places where adults have died of the disease, there may be a large number of orphans left behind which has its attendant problems of emotional and social problems due to lack of parental care and possible stigma too on the children. Sometimes people who are HIV positive are chastised in their community for their sexual orientation or way of life which may be perceived as the cause of the infection. This further adds to the psychological burden. Highlighted below are some of the specific ways in which being HIV positive can impact mental health:
Depression: this is twice as common in people with HIV as in the general population. It is characterized by the presence of low mood, tiredness, poor concentration, loss of pleasure in activities, changes in appetite and sleep, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide. There is an increased risk of suicide in individuals who are HIV positive. The risk is higher at the time of diagnosis, at the death of an HIV Positive friend, or when there is deterioration in physical health.
HIV may lead to psychosis
Anxiety: this is a feeling of panic often followed by sweating, increased heartbeat, nervousness, shortness of breath, and feelings of impending doom. It may accompany depression.
Substance use: this is very common with HIV infection. The individual may begin smoking or drinking or using hard drugs to try and cope with the diagnosis. This can lead to other problems in the individual and complicate treatment. Also, some people experience severe pain especially headaches which may predispose them to be dependent on substances.
Memory problems: the virus can directly infect the brain leading to difficulties with thinking, daily functioning, memory, and speech.
Psychosis: direct infection of the brain by the virus may produce abnormal behavior, auditory or visual hallucinations. The effect of stress related to the illness can also cause the development of a psychotic illness. HIV infection and AIDS affects all aspects of a person’s life.
The individual must adapt to a chronic life-threatening illness with physical and mental challenges. The use of anti-retroviral medication has helped improve outcomes and prolong life but it brings about additional stresses related to living with uncertainty about the future. Support from family and friends is very helpful and a holistic approach by health care providers should address all aspects of the individual’s life.