The Side Effects of Stigma: Reflecting on the Mental Health of Those Living With HIV
The HIV virus not only results in physical effects on a person’s body but also psychological harm, but just not in the way you would imagine.
The stigma surrounding HIV works to dehumanize and discriminate against these individuals, resulting in issues with emotional wellness and mental health, as well as receiving support for them.
Mercy Shibemba, an award-winning activist who was the Keynote Speaker for YouthREX’s Teach-In: “Beyond Invisible: Black Youth Mental Health” went into great depth on HIV stigma and its impacts on mental wellness of youth.
Mercy shared with us the six different types of stigma that many people with HIV often face. One that particularly stood out for me was public stigma. Mercy views public stigma as society’s messages about what it means to live with HIV.
We have long viewed HIV as a deadly virus that is associated with ‘promiscuous’ behaviour and racial minorities, such as those within the Black community, and this has, ultimately, affected how we treat people who live with it. Public stigma is heavily tied to other forms of stigma, such as self-stigma. Mercy provides an excellent description when she states that “it is easy to get caught into different negative narratives when it’s all around you”.
One can only imagine how it feels to be diagnosed with a disorder that everyone believes is a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) and that only affects certain races, or is so contagious that even touching you would result in transmission! Such messages about people with HIV are heavily influenced by the HIV and AIDS crisis in the 1980s, which promoted misinformation about transmission and the population it affects, fuelling fear-mongering.
All this stigma impacts how youth living with HIV perceive themselves and encourages isolation, which can be detrimental for their mental health.
I’ve seen the impact of HIV stigma on individuals in my own family, one of whom is my uncle, who was diagnosed with HIV when he was 5-years-old. He shared his struggles with me, such as people often being scared to be too close to him or being told that he ‘shouldn’t mention it’ by his mother when meeting new people or extended family. He always said he felt lonely growing up and he was sad that he had contracted it, not because of the complications it had caused on his body over the years, but because it meant that he could never truly feel a sense of belonging knowing that people would always fear him.
Destigmatizing HIV and improving mental health starts with addressing how we view people with it. We must normalize it as something that is simply a part of a person. Mercy states that initiating conversations about HIV within her family allowed for more acceptance of it. Allowing for more open discussions not only normalizes the topic but allows for the correction of some of its misconceptions, hence decreasing stigma.
It is also important to provide youth living with HIV with accessible support. Youth workers can support young people living with and affected by HIV and break down stigma. This is why YouthREX published a Research to Practice report in 2019 on Supporting Youth Living With and Affected by HIV in Ontario. This report provides youth workers with recommendations for best practices at the individual, interpersonal, organizational, and community levels.
Finally, when we consider providing accessible support for youth living with HIV, we must consider those of low socioeconomic status as well as racialized youth, such as those within the Black community, who already face barriers in being able to access support.
There are several resources available through organizations across Ontario who are available to provide support for youth with HIV/AIDS and their families through financial support, education, and psychosocial support: