By Matt Webster
Being diagnosed with HIV is challenging. There are a huge amount of internal and external factors that come into play. Even today, there still exists a huge amount of stigma. Over the past few years, I’ve had people say things to me or even stop talking to me after they found out about my status – all at a time when education should be improving, reducing stigma.
Stigma, combined with lack of education being provided, can combine to seriously affect the mental health of us living with HIV. When I was diagnosed 11 years ago, I had very little knowledge, next to no education about it and thought that my death sentence had been handed to me. I was suicidal. The self-stigma I’d developed growing up had gotten to a point where I even thought of myself as being highly contagious.
“Stigma, combined with lack of education being provided, can combine to seriously affect the mental health of us living with HIV.”
A therapist I spoke to a few years ago discussed the fact that I hadn’t dealt with my diagnosis and that it was a factor in another challenging mental health situation in 2020 – nine years after my diagnosis.
Being diagnosed with, and living with, HIV can be a strain on mental health. When someone abuses you with stigma, calls you ‘dirty’, or simply alludes to the fact that living with HIV isn’t ‘clean’, it can further affect you. For me, a lot of this has come from the community that I belong to, although a lot more from people hiding behind a screen or profile.
People need to realise that HIV isn’t something to be scared of any longer. It is a chronic, but well-managed condition. People on treatment become undetectable (sometimes within a few short months) and can no longer pass it on – U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable). Research says there’s ‘zero chance of passing HIV on’. The more this message is shared and talked about, the more stigma is reduced. The message of U=U is based on countless stringent clinical studies and research.
“People need to realise that HIV isn’t something to be scared of any longer. It is a chronic, but well-managed condition.”
We all have a part to play in this, no matter which community you belong to. In 2022, people living with HIV shouldn’t need to justify their existence, explain their condition or prove their viral load results (yes, genuinely that’s happened). Would you ask someone with diabetes, for example, if their condition is well-managed?
Thankfully, charities such as Lunch Positive provide safe spaces for people to receive support as they deal with a new diagnosis or navigate their lives living with HIV. There’s a huge amount of power in being able to speak to someone with lived and shared experience. One of the things which helped (and continues to help) the most with my own diagnosis is talking about it. Talking, sharing and meeting other people living with HIV helps to normalise and de-stigmatise it.
Through all the fear, panic and shame that people may face after a new HIV diagnosis, there is light at the end of a dark tunnel. Although it can sometimes feel like it, you’re not alone and you never will be.