Testing positive for an STI can negatively affect your mental health. But there are so many resources available to help you cope.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are extremely common, and they’re still shrouded in shame and stigma. So, it’s no wonder your mental health can take a toll if you receive a positive diagnosis.
A small 2019 survey conducted among 100 people living with herpes simplex virus found that:
- 98% of participants reported experiencing symptoms of depression
- 48% of participants reported experiencing suicidal ideation
- 6% of participants attempted suicide because of their diagnosis
The mental health side effects of an STI diagnosis are real, but there are ways to cope.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with an STI and you’re having a hard time handling the news, support is available. Whether you have a treatable infection like chlamydia or gonorrhea or a manageable one like herpes, HPV, or HIV, these nine coping strategies may help you find mental and emotional relief.
Testing positive for an STI is very common, says Sara C. Flowers, DrPH, vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“At any given time, about
You may feel alone, but rest assured that you’re not. Millions of people receive an STI diagnosis every day. (This may not make it easier to cope with, but it can serve as a friendly reminder, nonetheless.)
Receiving an STI diagnosis can throw you for a loop, so it’s important to prioritize self-care.
Some self-care practices you can try include:
- taking a long shower or bath with epsom salts
- going for a walk or run
- spending time in nature
- sitting by the water or in a park
- singing, painting, or other creative activities
- cooking your favorite comfort meals
It’s best to incorporate self-care practices into your daily routine, at least for a few weeks, to see how your body and mind respond to them. If one thing doesn’t seem to work for you, it’s OK to switch activities until you find something that works for you.
Plus, it may be a good idea to choose things that are easy for you to access and focus on things that feel right and doable in the moment, especially when symptoms may flare up (depending on your STI).
In addition to self-care practices, Medical Director for the telehealth company wisp Laura Purdy, MD, says that taking good care of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being will carry over into how you experience life with a chronic STI.
“Living healthy and having [helpful] habits will increase your health, build your immune system and its ability to control symptoms of the illness, and help you to handle flare-ups or exacerbations of the infection when they arise,” she adds.
For starters, she recommends the following tips:
- Take a whole-person look at your approach to health and wellness.
- Make sure that you’re eating nutritious, balanced meals.
- Be mindful of your tobacco and alcohol use.
- Optimize your sleep quality.
Sexual health resources are available for support and to help you cope.
“Planned Parenthood’s Chat/Text and Chatea/Textea programs are great resources for answers to questions about sexual health, including STIs,” says Flowers. You can text “PPNOW” or “AHORA” to be connected with a trained educator for answers in English or Spanish, respectively.
Joining support groups is a great option, too. “If the STI that you’ve been diagnosed with is a chronic or lifelong infection, I recommend that you find yourself support groups and resources of other people who are living with the same diagnosis,” adds Purdy.
There are several Facebook groups specifically for people with STIs — some facilitated by sex educators and others facilitated by people living with STIs. Joining can connect you with other folks who:
- are open about their experiences
- answer questions from other members
- offer insight into what has helped them along their journey
Sex positivity, including sex-positive content, can be incredibly healing, especially for folks who live with STIs.
When STI and mental health nonprofit organization Something Positive for Positive People asked its audience how their podcast has helped them, they reported an increase in education, self-acceptance, and a sense of community support.
To consume more sex-positivity and reframe any sex-negative ideas you may have, you can:
- read stories from and books by people who live with STIs
- listen to podcasts hosted by and featuring people with STIs
- follow therapists and educators on social media who discuss sexual health
Opening up about your STI status can serve as a gateway to receiving support from loving people in your life who will remind you that you’re still worthy of pleasure and acceptance.
Sharing your STI status with recent past, current, and future partners is important, too. “In the same way that talking to our partner(s) about what we like and don’t like makes sex better, so does talking to our partner(s) about STIs, getting tested, and ways to have fun, pleasurable, safer sex,” says Flowers.
“Open communication and knowing your STI status can help you and your partner(s) feel more relaxed, which can strengthen your relationship and enhance your intimate and sexual experiences,” she adds. After all, safer sex is a form of self-care.
The same thing goes for disclosure to future partners. Sharing statistics and the reality behind living with an STI can reduce stigma and show others that STIs aren’t as terrifying as poor sex education programs and the media portray them.
“It might feel scary or awkward to start conversations about STIs, but the more you do it, the easier it gets,” Flowers says.
Need help getting started? Planned Parenthood has created a video series that models how to talk about safer sex, STI testing, and having an STI.
“Stigma and shame around STIs and sex is very real and exists in many areas of our lives. Stigma can make living with an STI hard and even affect your mental health,” says Flowers.
If you’re having a hard time coping with having an STI, consider contacting a mental health professional for help.
“It’s a great idea to seek mental health support to help navigate (and hopefully overcome) the complex ways shame and stigma make us feel,” she adds.
Educating yourself about sexual health can be empowering, especially for folks who are STI-positive. This could also help you feel more confident when disclosing your status to a potential partner going forward if you live with a chronic STI.
To learn more about STIs and sexual health, you can:
- read books
- listen to podcasts
- follow sex educators
- research statistics and studies
- speak with a sex therapist
- visit health organization websites
“Know that there are resources out there for you,” says Flowers.
Purdy reminds that it’s very natural to experience a period of grieving after receiving an STI diagnosis. This could even be considered a form of disenfranchised grief.
Especially if it’s a lifelong condition, she says this can change parts of your life, including:
- the need for more medical care
- the potential to have to take medication daily
- how you interact with others on an intimate level
“You do need to go through a ‘normal’ and expected period of grieving while you integrate the thoughts about this illness into your life and routine,” she says. “But I want to let you know that you’re not defined by your chronic illness, and this goes for any chronic illness.”
She notes that chronic STIs fall into the same category of chronic illnesses as other more publicly discussed conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, lupus, arthritis, and others.
“[An STI] is not a life-ending diagnosis, and it shouldn’t stop you from being able to live a full and happy life achieving all of the goals that you’ve set for yourself,” Purdy adds. “So yes, of course, take the time to grieve. But after this time, I would encourage you to move forward and accept the change for what it is and not let it keep you from living your absolute best life.”
Receiving an STI diagnosis can negatively impact your mental health, but there are ways to cope, find support, and feel better.
Some helpful STI coping tips may include:
- remember that you’re not alone
- implement a self-care practice
- improve your overall health and wellness
- use available support resources
- consume more sex-positive content
- openly communicate with partners
- learn more about STIs and sexual health
- grieve, be gentle with yourself, and move forward
If you have a hard time managing your mental health after testing positive for an STI, plenty of resources are available. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional or sex therapist for help, support, and other personalized coping strategies.
Morgan Mandriota is a New York-based writer who is passionate about exploring the intersection of pleasure, healing, and holistic well-being. She currently works as a staff writer with Psych Central, where she specializes in creating content about sex, relationships, mental health, and alternative approaches to wellness. Her work has been published in notable publications, including Betches, Bumble, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, Health, mindbodygreen, Shape, Tinder, Verywell Mind, and Well+Good. In her free time, she enjoys chasing sunsets, playing video games, spending time in nature, swimming in a sea of CBD salve, trying different therapy practices, and working on her passion project Highly Untamed. Connect with Morgan on Twitter and Instagram, or visit her website here to learn more.