Online continuing education provider for mental health professionals by real professionals with real clinical experience.

04 – HIV and Mental Health

It’s probably not surprising that those with mental illness are at a higher risk for HIV. People who struggle with mental illness tend to have a more difficult time processing information and avoiding risky situations overall, as well as social challenges to maintain stable relationships and solve problems effectively. Additionally, those who are living with HIV tend to have more difficulty managing their medications and other medical needs when they struggle with mental illness, such as anxiety or depression. In this way, you can see how mental illness both increases the likelihood of contracting HIV as well as the HIV progressing to AIDs due to lack of consistent treatment.

Still, for many of us mental health professionals, we can often feel unprepared to provide effective treatment for someone who is HIV positive. However, working with this population does not require that you be an expert in every single facet of HIV/AIDS. It doesn’t even require that you be an expert in

What it does require is that you have compassion (Johnson, 2000). Compassion has been shown to be the most important and influential aspect of how mental health professionals can help HIV-infected individuals. Specifically, your compassion needs to be focused on helping the client to realize that they are more than their disease.

Underlying values of the mental health professional.
Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly interacting with others around you based on your own values, beliefs, and thoughts. For many of us, these values are so ingrained in our minds that we are not always conscious of them. Still, our values do influence how we engage with other people on a daily basis. The way that a mental health professional views themselves, their client, their work, and their world all influences the therapeutic work that the professional will provide. So, if all of these values are so ingrained in your mind, is there anything that you can do to make sure that you are providing effective treatment?

Yes! There is.

First, it’s important to know and understand your own values, beliefs, and assumptions you might have about HIV/AIDS. For example, take a moment right now and think about some of these. What kind of thoughts come to your mind when you think about HIV/AIDS as a disease? What are your thoughts regarding people who are living with HIV/AIDS? Start to become familiar with your own beliefs and values around this topic. If you hold beliefs that are contrary to an empathic, compassionate approach to providing services for people living with HIV/AIDS, work to challenge those beliefs and values.

Second, replace unhelpful beliefs and values with an attitude of respect for the client. One of the ways that you can show respect to your client is through showing unconditional positive regard for the client. This means that you accept the client regardless of whether or not you approve of his or her values. This does not mean that you approve of their values (you may or may not). Instead, it just means that you place the client’s values above your own throughout the therapeutic process.

Showing respect also means remaining free of judgement when it comes to your client. Many times clients will come through our doors already feeling judged by others. If we engage in the same approach, we will only add fuel to the fire and will not be effective in helping them to emotionally find healing. Acknowledging the client’s uniqueness and their rights as individuals can also help them to not feel judged and to feel supported by you.

Third, be yourself. One of the most important aspects of being an effective mental health professional is being authentic with your clients. Clients are smart and they know when you are not

Finally, believe in your client’s growth and ability to achieve more. One of my former professors would talk through challenging client cases with me whenever I was stuck. He would always ask me the same question before we began discussing the case: “Jacey, do you believe in the client’s ability to experience change?” And how I answered that question would influence how we discussed the case and ultimately, how I figured out what I needed to do in order to get the client progressing again.

If we do not believe in our client’s ability to grow and experience change, how can they believe in themselves?

It is important that people living with HIV/AIDS receive treatment not only for HIV, but also for any mental health issues that may be present. For example, studies show that treating depression in patients who are HIV positive not only reduces their symptoms related to depression, but also improves measures of HIV infection (such as viral load).

Individuals with psychosis (such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) have even more extreme challenges with risky behaviors, such as impulse control, substance abuse, and sexual activity. Their impaired ability to comply with medical care, explain their symptoms to medical providers, and seek out treatment mean that it is more difficult to both diagnosis and treat HIV in individuals with psychosis.