A number of studies from across the globe suggest that mental health issues are on the rise in people who have HIV and AIDS. In fact, an analysis of these findings suggests that twice as many people with HIV have mental health issues than that of people without the disease.
The statistics were presented by mental health professionals at a recent meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, with members resolving that HIV and AIDS services needed to incorporate more mental health treatment services.
The findings back up the findings of a 2007 study completed by Professor Melvyn Freeman, cluster manager of the Non-Communicable Diseases Unit in the National Health Department of South Africa.
“In the general population, it was found that South Africa has 16.5 percent of people suffering from some form of mental disorder. When you come to people living with HIV, it went up to 43.7 percent. That’s a huge difference,” Freeman said.
The studies do not reveal whether HIV-infected people had a mental health disorder before their illness or whether mental health issues were a resulting factor of having HIV or AIDS.
“When you look at the higher rates among HIV-infected people, you have to ask the question: Is this because they had a prior condition and their vulnerability led to their infection or is it that, because they have contracted HIV, it has mental impact on them, and, therefore, this raises the numbers of people living with HIV who have mental disorders. This is a complex issue and I would like to suggest that both are true that it’s very, very likely that mental disorder is both a risk factor and a consequence of HIV,” Freeman continued.
Previous studies suggest that a prior mental illness can lead to riskier behaviors that result in HIV infection. A 2008 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that some studies point to behavioral risk factors for transmission of HIV in between 30 percent and 60 percent of people with severe mental illness.
Risk factors may include risky sexual behavior or injecting drug use.
Freeman also pointed to feelings of anxiety and despair that often develop after people find out they have HIV.
Professor Rita Thom, a psychiatrist with more than 30 years’ experience, supported this assertion, adding that it’s common for people living with HIV to acquire a mental health condition.
She went on to suggest that mental health issues connected to HIV and AIDS patients can be divided into three subgroups.
“That is the HIV-associated neuro-psychiatric disorders. Those are the disorders that result from HIV brain infection; then you’ve got HIV and serious mental illness, which is quite complicated because it includes both some of the results of HIV brain infection as well as people who have a primary psychiatric disorder and then become HIV-infected; and, then, there is a very large group of people who have HIV and what we call common mental disorders, which are depression, anxiety, substance use disorders,” Thom said.
The 2008 WHO report also suggested that there are barriers to proper diagnosis of mental health problems in HIV patients due to the fact that many do not reveal their mental state of health or seek out services.
As of 2008, AVERT statistics revealed that there were approximately 33.4 million people living with HIV and AIDS worldwide.