For World AIDS Day, let’s talk about HIV and mental health

Have you seen the awesome Netflix show Queer Eye? If not, Queer Eye follows a group of 5 amazing, confident, and kind men known as the “Fab Five,” who identify as gay and/or queer, and are invited into people’s homes across America (and now Japan) for magnificent lifestyle makeovers, with a side of real talk on things like feelings, relationships, life, and love. If you are wondering why I am talking to you about Queer Eye, well, trust me, there is a point to this!

The show really brings to light what sociologists and feminists have increasingly been using to understand the world around us — the concept of “intersectionality.” The term, which was first coined by Professor Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, and went mainstream in 2015 when it was adopted in the Oxford English Dictionary, simply means that our lives are a mosaic of “intersecting identities.”

Surabhi Srivastava

One such intersectionality that I have been thinking more about recently is that of mental health and HIV positive status. And this, in fact, takes me back to Queer Eye, given that one of the members of the Fab Five, Jonathan Van Ness or JVN (as he is popularly known, and he is my favorite!) in his recently released powerful memoir Over the Top: Raw Journey to Self Love, publicly came out as HIV-positive, and also shared his struggle with mental health owing to various traumatic life experiences related to growing up gay, dealing with sexual abuse and drug addiction, and testing positive for HIV.

And this made me think, especially as someone who works in the field of public health, how often do we talk about the intersection of HIV status and mental health? Perhaps, JVN is the first celebrity that I can vividly remember having been outspoken about struggling with his HIV positive status, and its implications and repercussions on his mental health. Following his lead, let’s give this a shot— let’s talk about HIV and mental health, and we can begin with some quick numbers.

According to UNAIDS, the United Nations agency that is leading the global ambitious task of ending AIDS by 2030, there were about 37.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS in 2018, of which 36.2 million were adults (source). Of course, it’s incredibly important to note that not every person who contracts HIV gets AIDS, and with accessible, affordable and improved anti-retroviral or ART medication, people who are HIV positive can and are leading long, healthy and happy lives just like everyone else. However, given the stigma, shame, and discrimination that still exists around talking openly about, and revealing one’s HIV status, people who are HIV positive are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Moreover, since talking about mental health is also taboo in a lot of places around the world, the “double burden” of taboo and stigma around HIV status and mental health only further reinforces the cycle of shame and silence for those who are HIV positive and are also dealing with negative mental health.

Moreover, mental health is rarely an aspect that is addressed as part of comprehensive healthcare for HIV-positive persons, leading to lack of data about how HIV status and mental health are interrelated, especially for HIV-positive persons in poor and developing parts of the world. Since mental health never or rarely gets talked about when an HIV-positive person visits a doctor, we have limited knowledge about the impact of HIV on mental health or vice-versa as experienced by those living with HIV, and if these impacts differ for men versus women, those on medication regularly versus those who aren’t on ART medication, etc. (think back to intersectionality!).

And this is why pop-culture phenoms like Queer Eye and memoirs such as the one by JVN become so much more important! They highlight stories and experiences that are sidelined, rendered invisible or forgotten. Moreover, they push for public acknowledgment and conversation, which are the first steps in ending shame and taboo around an issue — be it mental health, HIV, or mental health and HIV. You get the drift, right?

So, if you are now saying, “Hey Surabhi, this is great. I know all of this, but what can I do?” Well, fret not! You can begin with some very simple things, starting this December 1st, celebrated annually as World AIDS Day to show support and solidarity in the global fight against HIV/AIDS and for those living with HIV. Here are 3 things you can do!

  1. Become more informed—about intersectionality, particularly with regard to HIV status and mental health! If you are into academic reading or documentaries, absolutely give it a shot! But becoming more informed could also including something light and fun like watching videos of JVN talk about HIV and mental health across different social media platforms, or reading his memoir! You can also supplement this with some episodes of Queer Eye.
  2. Talk about it — wherever you are! With your family, friends (online and offline), at school, on Instagram, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we create spaces and enable more open and public conversations on this topic to chip away the shame and silence that comes with it.
  3. Create something — are you into art, blogging/vlogging, pop-quizzes, insta stories? Don’t worry about the medium! Instead, contribute towards sharing your thoughts, confusion, anxiety, questions, in whatever format that works for! This also helps others to be aware, informed and engaged on issues that you care and are passionate about!

On that note, leaving you all with some wise words by JVN from his memoir.

“It’s not gonna be pretty, but it’s my truth, and if I don’t share it, I won’t be able to help others who are struggs to func.”

      — Jonathan Van Ness, Over the Top: A raw journey to self love

Until next time!