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A Focus on Mental Health Vastly Improves HIV Treatment Programs

A Stronger Focus on Mental Health Can Vastly Improve HIV Treatment Programs

If HIV treatment programs implement better care for depression and other mental health disorders, we are likely to see improved outcomes, especially among young adults. 

Nearly 22 percent of people living with HIV will be diagnosed with major depression, and as a result it keeps them from taking their meds. As reported by AIDS Map, people dealing with chronic health conditions, including HIV, are more likely to have untreated depression as well. 

So why haven’t more HIV treatment programs implemented better mental health care? 

As Dr. Pamela Collins of the National Institute of Mental Health pointed out to the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections last week, the relationship between mental health disorders and HIV works in both directions.

While mental disorders can be a risk factor to getting exposed to HIV, those who are just diagnosed are also at risk for depression as they learn to adjust and live with the social stigma attached to the virus. 

Nearly 15 percent of adults and 26 percent of adolescents living with HIV said that depression, anxiety, or the feeling of being overwhelmed can keep them from taking their meds, a study published in PLOSH Medicine revealed. 

Because HIV and mental health come with their own assigned social stigma, it makes it even harder for those living with either (or both) to find support, which is why it’s important for HIV treatment providers to supply care simultaneously. 

One pilot study in Cameroon saw an improvement in their HIV-positive participants after providing HIV clinical services with a team of mental health professionals to work side by side. Within a few months, patients dealing with HIV and depression not only saw vast improvement, many of them saw an improved T-cell count and a more suppressed viral load in the process. 

“Integrating care for mental disorders and HIV is feasible,” Collins said. “This means making the screening and treatment of mental disorders a normative part of HIV care. Consensus needs to be achieved on who delivers services – nurses, adherence counselors, community health workers, peers or other groups. People seeking services, healthcare providers, managers and policymakers need to be involved in decision making about service integration.” 

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