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Addressing Mental Health and HIV

May 25, 2016

Puzzle in bubble head

Credit: Aquir for iStock via Thinkstock

When we think of HIV prevention, the first thing that usually comes to mind is "safer sex." But structural factors, including homelessness, education level, employment status, racism, and homophobia, are more often better predictors of one's chances of being exposed to HIV. Combating these societal barriers is important work and a priority for Bailey House, one of the nation's oldest housing and HIV and AIDS service organizations.

At Bailey House, our mission is to transform the lives of people with and affected by HIV -- mental health included. Untreated mental illness and trauma can lead to self-medication and substance abuse; and when left undiagnosed or untreated, mental illness and substance abuse disorders can negatively impact  people living with HIV, particularly if they're homeless or housing insecure. Research shows that housing status is more directly linked to HIV status and life expectancy than access to health insurance.

I know from experience that whole health can only be achieved when everyone -- regardless of HIV status -- has access to services that improve their mental and emotional well-being in addition to their physical health. Take Ernesto for example: an openly gay man living with HIV who sought political asylum from Venezuela. For a decade, Ernesto struggled with ill health, homelessness, and addiction. His situation only improved after he was connected to care and stable housing. There's also Lenecia, a single mom living with HIV. Struggling to manage her chronic illness while also raising two kids, one of whom is autistic, Lenecia needed a support network. With the help of a case manager, Lenecia has been stably housed for three years, and her kids are thriving in school. Both Ernesto and Lenecia are now pursuing their career goals, and their stories make it clear that HIV and mental health really do go hand-in-hand.

As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, let's continue to challenge each other to talk openly and honestly about the importance of mental health, especially in the context of HIV prevention, treatment, and care. It's through communications like this one, education, and awareness programs that we will truly improve the lives of all members of our community, no matter their age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV or housing status.

HRC is committed to working with organizations such as Bailey House to end the HIV epidemic and the stigma surrounding HIV. Help us normalize conversations about HIV and promote safer sex by sharing our resource guide What Do I Do? A Handbook to Understanding Health & HIV.

Joseph Neese is a member of the Bailey House board of directors.

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Trauma: Frozen Moments, Frozen Lives
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This article was provided by Human Rights Campaign. Visit Human Rights Campaign's website to find out more about their activities and publications.

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