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Trauma, Mental Health and HIV

By Candace Y.A. Montague

June 5, 2012

Abuse, PTSD and HIV. Clearly, there is a connection. Photo credit:

Abuse, PTSD and HIV. Clearly, there is a connection. Photo credit:

One issue that this Examiner keeps on her radar is the strong connection between domestic violence and HIV infection. A study was published in March that revealed some stunning results about trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and HIV. The University of California-San Francisco's Women's HIV Program found that trauma led to women putting themselves at risk for HIV infection. Furthermore, another study showed that PTSD and abuse were a main factor in treatment adherence failure.

Lead researcher Edward Machtinger analyzed the results of 29 previous studies that included data from 5,930 HIV-positive women. In his research, he found that HIV positive women are two to six times more likely to have experienced trauma or abuse. Also, more than 60 percent have been sexually abused. An additional study showed that patients in the Women's HIV Program that were recently traumatized women were four times more likely to have detectable levels of the virus in their blood signaling that they are not adhering to the drug regimen. Among American women with HIV/AIDS, 30 percent suffer PTSD (five times national rate). They also suffer intimate partner violence more than twice the national rate.

These studies say two things. First, mental health services goes hand in hand with HIV treatment. Stigma aside, managing an infectious disease along with the rest of life's responsibilities can be a tremendous burden. These victims are struggling to handle their health, possibly children, and the affects of living in an unstable and dangerous environment. How does a woman who relies on an abusive partner for housing and money approach the subject of sexual history or prophylaxis use? There is no prescription for negotiation. Specialists must remember to treat the whole patient even after she has abandoned her dangerous situation. Side note: Avoid telling her to "get over it." No statement could be more worthless.

Second, there needs to be more advocacy to reach out to abusers. (Yes I realize this is an enormous task.) It's fitting to empower a woman to stand up to abuse and leave a dangerous man alone. However, what happens when the abuser moves on to harm and intimidate someone else? The dreaded cycle repeats and the virus continues to spread. The abuser also needs mental health services. Where are the services and programs that tell the abuser that they don't have authority to put their hands on a woman no matter what? Eventually the abuser must adapt some anger management techniques and learn that hitting, raping, and mentally abusing a woman is just wrong. He or she has to learn to communicate their emotions differently.

One such local advocate who works on abusers as well as victims is Queen Afi Gaston, Founder of Domestic Violence Wears Many Tags (DVWMT). Her domestic violence prevention program reaches out to all individuals and groups about the different faces of abuse and how to leave a situation. And yes she works with the abuser as well. Click here to visit her website or call (202)821-8933.

Recommended reading:

Beyond "Getting Over It": Why Trauma and Gender Violence Matter in HIV/AIDS

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