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Women and HIV/AIDS: Emotional Health

March 4, 2009

Women and HIV/AIDS: Emotional Health
It is a normal reaction to feel down, or even devastated, after being diagnosed with HIV or during the course of the disease. A support network can help you cope with tough times. But when feelings become severe and limit the energy you need to stay focused on being healthy, you should talk with your doctor. People living with HIV are more likely to have depression, as well as other mental illnesses. HIV and its treatment also can affect brain function, including thinking, mood, and behavior. Many of these problems can be helped with treatment.


HIV does not directly cause depression. But depression is twice as common in people with HIV as in the general public. Depression is a separate medical condition that needs to be treated. Research shows that depression can speed up HIV's progression to AIDS.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Sadness, anxiety, and irritability
  • Loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of concentration
  • Low sex drive
  • Thoughts of suicide

Diagnosing depression can be hard in someone with HIV. Some HIV symptoms and side effects of HIV drugs are the same as those of depression. These include fatigue, low sex drive, little appetite, confusion, nightmares, nervousness, and weight loss. But a true loss of interest in activities that someone used to enjoy is a sign that a person is depressed.

Treatment, such as talk therapy and antidepressants, usually can help people with depression. Antidepressants are usually safe for people with HIV. But there may be interactions with other drugs, so it's important that you and your doctor watch for side effects. Do not use St. John's wort, a drug that some people use to treat mild symptoms of depression. It has harmful interactions with HIV medicines. Visit our section on mental health for more information.

Problems in Brain Function

HIV, as well as some of the medicines used to treat HIV, can affect brain function. Memory problems, confusion, slowed thinking, problems talking, changes in mood and behavior and other problems can greatly affect quality of life, and complicate HIV treatment. Some of these problems can be improved or reversed with treatment. Counseling can also help people learn to cope with changes in brain function. Talk to your doctor if you or someone you care for begins to show signs of decreased mental function.

Additional Resources


  1. Federal resource  Mental Health and HIV/AIDS -- Depression and adjustment disorder are two common mental health disorders seen in people with HIV/AIDS. This publication provides mental health resources for people who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
  2. Federal resource  NINDS Neurological Manifestations of AIDS Information Page -- This online publication provides information on how HIV/AIDS can affect the nervous system, treatment options, prognosis, research, as well as additional resources.
  3. AIDS Dementia Complex (Copyright © Project Inform) -- This publication explains what AIDS dementia complex (ADC) is, including detailed descriptions of the symptoms it causes in its different stages. It describes how HIV is thought to cause ADC and how doctors diagnose and treat ADC and its symptoms.
  4. Depression and HIV/AIDS (Copyright © Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) -- This publication gives information on depression and HIV. It also explains treatment options for people who are HIV-positive and have depression.
  5. HIV and AIDS (Copyright © APA) -- This publication explains HIV-related mental health problems. Advice is provided on how to deal with distress, depression, and anxiety as a result of the disease and/or its treatment.
  6. HIV: Coping With the Diagnosis (Copyright © AAFP) -- This fact sheet provides information on how to cope with an HIV diagnosis and ways to take care of yourself.
  7. PDF file  Positive? How Are You Feeling? (Copyright © Project Inform) -- This publication is designed to help women be aware of their feelings and signals that may be related to their HIV disease. This publication also discusses ways in which women can respond to feelings in order to feel better.


  1. Federal resource  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HHS
  2. Federal resource  National Mental Health Information Center, SAMHSA, HHS
  3. Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, ARI, UCSF
  4. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

Federal resource = Indicates Federal Resources

This article was provided by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
See Also
Depression and HIV
Feeling Good Again: Mental Healthcare Works!
More on Depression and HIV/AIDS