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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Women
Michelle Lopez Alora Gale Precious Jackson Nina Martinez Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga Loreen Willenberg  
Michelle Alora Precious Nina Gracia Loreen  

Depression, Women and HIV

February 2013

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What Is Depression?

Being depressed, in everyday language, occurs when someone feels down, sad, blue, unhappy, or hopeless. These are all normal feelings, and almost everyone experiences them at one time or another. Receiving and living with a diagnosis of HIV can be stressful, overwhelming, and fearful at times. So it is not unusual for HIV+ people to feel down or anxious.

If these feelings are overpowering, disabling, or long-lasting, however, they may be a sign that you are experiencing a condition known as depression. Compared to sadness, depression is more intense, lasts longer (more than two weeks), and interferes with your day-to-day ability to function. In medical language, depression is a diagnosis based on having a certain number of specific symptoms (from the list below). Depression is not a normal part of being HIV+ and can cause some serious health problems. If you have any of these symptoms or are unsure if what you are experiencing is normal, it is important to talk to your health care provider.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Aches or pains for no clear reason
  • Feelings of sadness, guilt, hopelessness, and/or worthlessness
  • Irritability; getting into arguments easily
  • Lack of interest or pleasure in activities that usually interest you
  • Low sex drive
  • Difficulty making decisions or concentrating
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Thoughts of harming oneself or committing suicide

If you are thinking of hurting yourself of committing suicide, please tell someone immediately. You can call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or go to

In addition to the symptoms listed above, you may also notice yourself doing some of the following if you are depressed:

  • Not taking care of yourself in terms of grooming, dressing, and personal hygiene
  • Skipping or not going to work; calling in sick
  • Being very critical and down on yourself
  • Not talking to or going out with friends
  • Not pursuing doing your usual social activities, hobbies, or recreations
  • Crying or feeling like crying more often than normal, and often without knowing why
  • Using alcohol or other recreational drugs more than usual

Sometimes substance use hides depression. This happens when people try to "self-medicate" by using drugs or alcohol to try not to feel the pain of what troubles them. If you feel that depression or anxiety causes or adds to your substance use, ask your health care provider or AIDS service agency for a referral to a mental health provider.

Treatment Options


The good news is that depression is treatable. Treatments include psychotherapy, social support, medication, alternative therapies, or any combination of these. While it is true that depression can get better on its own, this can take months or even years. Treatment will likely shorten the time it takes for you to feel better and may help you stay on your HIV drugs. It also may keep you from losing a job, a relationship, or even your life.


Various mental health professionals can provide psychotherapy, also known as "talk therapy" or personal counseling. Psychotherapy involves talking to a trained professional about what you are experiencing. The therapist provides support and helps you to understand what is troubling you. While most psychotherapy occurs one-on-one, group therapy is also helpful for some people.

In the US, mental health professionals who provide psychotherapy include:

  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • Social workers
  • Marriage and family therapists
  • Mental Health Counselors

Social Support

It may also be helpful to seek the support of other HIV+ women through support groups or peer counseling (Please visit our online blog for HIV+ women, A Girl Like Me). Social support from friends and family has been found to help HIV+ people avoid depression or cope better with it. Contact with others helps prevent feeling lonely and isolated. Friends and family can also provide emotional support, which is very important for people living with a serious illness like HIV. Members of a social support network can help with chores like shopping or housework and act as caregivers if you get sick.

Antidepressant Medications

Antidepressant medications are often prescribed for depression or anxiety and have been shown to help decrease symptoms for some people. Care should be used when taking antidepressant medications with HIV drugs. Many of the popular kinds of antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs can interact with some HIV drugs. It is important to talk to your health care provider before starting any new medications.

Generally, the safest type of antidepressants for use with HIV drugs is selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors or SSRIs, such as Celexa (citalopram), Lexapro (escitalopram), Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline). A popular herbal antidepressant called St. John’s Wort should not be taken, as it affects the immune system and interacts with many HIV drugs.

Other Treatment

Meditation, massage, yoga, breathing, and relaxation exercises are all alternative therapies that may help you feel better. Acupuncture and acupressure therapies may help reduce stress and improve your mood. Mindfulness techniques may help you get back in touch with what makes life worth living and avoid going into downward mood spirals. Some of them have even been combined with traditional psychotherapy and shown to be very effective (e.g., mindfulness-based cognitive therapy). Good nutrition and physical activity are beneficial, no matter which treatments you choose.

Get Checked and Treated for Depression

Talk to your health care provider about depression, especially if you are experiencing symptoms or having trouble sticking to your HIV drug regimen. If you are suffering from depression, ask for a referral to see a mental health care provider. Mental health care (including psychotherapy, social support, medication, and alternative therapies) can not only improve your adherence to HIV drugs, but also improve your health and quality of life.

Many people do not believe in the value of mental health treatment. You or those you love may have heard that people who see therapists or take antidepressants are "crazy," or weak. Try not to let these judgments keep you from getting treatment that will make you feel and live better. When we experience physical problems, it is best to get treatment. If someone breaks her leg, we encourage her to see a health care provider to get the leg checked and treated so it heals properly. Similarly, when we experience emotional difficulty, there is no need to suffer when effective treatment is available.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.
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