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Expressive Therapy Helps Women with HIV Avoid Isolation

Emerging research suggest a group intervention technique can help women living with HIV disclose their health status and improve their social support.

In turn, women gain self-efficacy and improve the safety and quality of their relationships.

“Medication alone is totally insufficient,” said the study’s first author, Edward L. Machtinger, M.D., director of the Women’s HIV Program at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Over 90 percent of our patients are on effective antiretroviral therapy but far too many are dying from suicide, addiction, and violence.”

Depression, addiction, and especially trauma are very common and often devastating for women living with HIV but are not being effectively addressed by most clinics,” said Machtinger.

The new intervention of expressive therapy is designed to help women develop the skills and confidence to tell their stories publicly. Empowering or giving a women the confidence to tell her story can reduce isolation and be the first step towards genuine health.

“We partnered with The Medea Project to deliver an effective expressive therapy intervention that starts to address the primary causes of death in our patients,” Machtinger said.

The Medea Project was founded in 1989 by Rhodessa Jones as a group performance intervention to empower incarcerated women to improve their lives and reduce recidivism.

Jones adapted the program to help women living with HIV. The process consists of a series of intensive workshops that culminate in a theatrical performance.

The Medea Project’s method focuses on storytelling as a means of healing and empowerment.

The storytelling includes talking about and processing other stigmatizing and traumatic experiences in a group setting with the support of other women.

In the case of the study, the process included specific prompts given to the women asking how they found out they were HIV-positive and whom they had told about their HIV status.

The burden of secrecy was relieved and self-identity could be recast in a more positive light.

Then, through public performance, participants felt the power that their stories could have on others and gained both an appreciation for their lives and a desire to unleash their newly found “voices” to change the social conditions that create HIV risk, stigma, and trauma.

In the study, eight HIV-positive women and seven HIV-negative women from Medea’s core group formed the final performance group that culminated in a professional theatrical run of eight shows seen by more than 1,000 people.

None of the HIV-positive participants had publically disclosed their HIV status prior to the study; all disclosed their status during the performances.

“Eddy Machtinger challenged me to take women living with HIV and apply the processes I had used for over two decades with incarcerated women to get them to open up and talk about living with HIV,” said Jones. “Sharing is an important process in creating the play and violence is what they talked about the most.

“Our data revealed five core themes that described the impact of the intervention on the participants’ lives: sisterhood, catharsis, self-acceptance, safer and healthier relationships, and gaining a voice.”

“Importantly, half of the participants reported leaving or avoiding unhealthy or unsafe relationships, a significant impact since we know women living with HIV experience high rates of intimate partner violence,” said Machtinger.

“Integrating this type of intervention into the primary care of women living with HIV is the first step towards transforming primary care from treatment to actual healing,” he said.

The study appears online in the Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care.

Source: University of California, San Francisco

Expressive Therapy Helps Women with HIV Avoid Isolation

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Expressive Therapy Helps Women with HIV Avoid Isolation. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 14 Jul 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.