Deciding whether or not to disclose your HIV status can be difficult, and the right decision may differ from person to person and from situation to situation. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed and uncertain about telling people. Unfortunately, even though there have been huge improvements in the public’s awareness of HIV, stigma remains. Keep these five Ws (who, what, where, when, why) in mind when you consider telling others about your diagnosis:
1. Who do I need to tell? If you’ve had unprotected sex with a partner, it’s important to let them know they may be at risk and should get tested. Regardless of whether they decide to get tested, by disclosing this information, you raise their awareness about HIV. Some states also mandate disclosure prior to sex — find out the laws in your area.
When it comes to telling family members and friends, it’s important to be selective. Keep in mind that some people may not ready to hear the news; and others won’t be able to understand it. Disclosing can make your relationship even stronger; but if your relationship has been rocky in the past, the news might further strain it.
2. What do I want to say and what can I expect in response? Follow your instincts — and not your fears — when it comes to telling someone. Take into account how much information that person has about HIV and AIDS and shape what you tell them accordingly. It’s a good idea to role-play and practice telling someone before actually doing it. Keep in mind those who love you may have negative reactions simply because the news may frighten or worry them. That may make disclosing to a sympathetic stranger easier, so consider telling an HIV-positive friend or acquaintance first.
It’s also important to remember that if you don’t get a positive response, you are not being rejected; the virus is being rejected. Help them learn more about the disease and give them time to process. If they still reject you? It’s time to meet someone who won’t.
3. When should you tell someone you’re HIV-positive? If it’s a sexual partner who may be at risk, the when is usually the sooner the better. But it may actually be better to wait when telling some family and friends — at least until you have a better sense of what it all means.
4. Where is the best place to have this conversation? Private locations are best, and you’ll want some place quiet enough so you can hear each other. The reaction of the other person can be hard to predict so you may also want someplace where you’ll feel safe no matter how they respond.
5. Why am I telling this person? This is your private health information, and once it’s out in the open it can impact your everyday life — at work, in public, and at home — so think about your purpose for disclosing the news. If you are not ready to tell anyone at all, that’s Okay too. But try to avoid isolation. Find a local support group, like AIDS Services Foundation Orange County’s Healthy Relationships program, where you’ll receive encouragement, care, and additional information.
Healthy Relationships is a five-week, small-group program that helps men and women living with HIV develop skills to facilitate their decisions about whether to disclose their status to family, friends, loved ones, and sexual partners. It also helps participants build healthier and safer sexual relationships long-term.
Even though you may feel overwhelmed, vulnerable, and uncertain about your life and your future — you need never alone on this journey.
Mario Casas is an HIV prevention specialist with AIDS Services Foundation Orange County. For more information on ASF and its Healthy Relationships program visit ocasf.org.