The Global Perspective on HIV/AIDS and Mental Health

Dr. Nils Daulaire.
Dr. Nils Daulaire.

As AIDS 2012 (the XIX International AIDS Conference) continues in Washington, DC, we are reminded of the numerous, multiple, and far-reaching impacts this epidemic has had in the past 30-plus years.  The burden of being HIV positive, or caring for loved ones living with the disease, is not restricted to the physical toll.  For many people, there are equally important mental health needs (PDF).  We at HHS understand that addressing HIV means addressing the whole person.

Those affected by HIV/AIDS may experience anxiety, depression, or mania.  Mental health issues can arise from HIV medications (some can make depression worse, for example) and from the virus itself (some infections can lead to changes in behavior and functioning).  Furthermore, mental health challenges may come from the stress of dealing with the death of a loved one or from the reality of having a serious disease.

HHS is working at the global level to make sure that when addressing health needs, both physical and mental issues are taken into consideration.  At the Sixty-Fifth World Health Assembly this past May, the United States supported an historic resolution, The Global Burden of Mental Disorders and the Need for Comprehensive, Coordinated Response from Health and Social Sectors at the Country Level (PDF).  This resolution urges member states to develop comprehensive policies and strategies to address, "the promotion of mental health, the prevention of mental disorders and early identification and care, support, treatment and recovery of persons with mental disorders."  It also calls upon the World Health Organization to develop a comprehensive mental health action plan.

Passed by the Assembly, the resolution noted that mental health problems do not occur in a vacuum, but rather often are associated with disease, including HIV.

HHS is also supporting numerous programs and activities that address HIV and global mental health issues.  In April, Secretary Sebelius traveled to Haiti to visit with people affected by the 2010 earthquake.  During a visit to St. Damien Hospital , the Secretary participated in a discussion with mental health practitioners and patients about the importance of psychosocial support for children living with HIV and their caregivers.

So, we're making strides and are headed in the right direction.  But there is much work in this area still to be done.  We at HHS will continue to highlight the importance of mental health in dealing with HIV/AIDS as well as with a host of other global health issues.

During this important time when we recognize the achievements made in global AIDS work and we look forward to "turning the tide," let's all consider the impacts of mental health.

Editor's note: SAMHSA and OGA have collaborated on several sessions at AIDS 2012. Visit the links below to learn more about the sessions and view any slides or videos shared by the conference:

  • Addressing Mental Disorders: The Missing Link to Effective HIV Prevention, Care, Treatment and Support
  • Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The HIV Crisis Among Street Youth
  • Developing Policy and Programs to Address Alcohol Use as Part of a National HIV Prevention Strategy
  • Exploring Alcohol Use, Gender-Based Violence and HIV/AIDS

Nils Daulaire, M.D., M.P.H., is director of the Office of Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.