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Living with HIV

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HIV and Mental Health

Last Reviewed: October 19, 2016

Key Points

  • Mental health is defined as a state of overall well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
  • If you have HIV, it’s important to take care of both your physical health and your mental health.
  • People with HIV have higher rates of mental health conditions than the general public.
  • Mental health conditions are treatable, and people with mental health problems can recover.

What is mental health?

Mental health is defined as a state of overall well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Mental health has three main areas:

  • Emotional well-being (life satisfaction, happiness, cheerfulness, peacefulness)
  • Psychological well-being (self-acceptance, optimism, hopefulness, purpose in life, spirituality, self-direction, positive relationships)
  • Social well-being (social acceptance, believing in the potential of people and society as a whole, personal self-worth and usefulness to society, sense of community)

If you are living with HIV, it is important to take care of not only your physical health but also your mental health.

Are people with HIV at risk for experiencing mental health conditions?

Anyone can have problems with mental health. Mental health conditions are common in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2014, approximately 18% of adults in the United States had a mental illness.

People with HIV, however, have higher rates of mental health conditions than the general public. People with HIV may experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, and insomnia. To learn more about specific mental health problems, visit MentalHealth.gov.

It’s important to remember that mental health conditions are treatable and that people who have mental health problems can recover.

What can negatively affect a person’s mental health?

Stressful situations—such as the death of a loved one, loss of a job, difficulties at school, or exposure to violence or abuse—can have a negative effect on a person’s mental health. Having a serious medical illness or condition, like HIV infection, can be another major source of stress that affects a person’s mental health in a negative way.

Sometimes, HIV infection and related opportunistic infections can also directly impact the brain and nervous system. This may lead to problems in memory, thinking, and behavior and can be a challenge to a person’s mental health. In addition, some medicines used to treat HIV may have side effects that affect a person’s mental health.

When do I need help with my mental health?

When feelings become severe, won’t go away, or limit your ability to stay healthy and carry out typical functions in your life, it’s important to get help.

Changes to your mental health that may indicate that you need help include:

  • No longer finding enjoyment in activities that usually make you happy
  • Experiencing persistent sadness or feeling empty
  • Feeling anxious or stressed
  • Having suicidal thoughts

Mental health conditions can sometimes lead to alcohol or drug use. Talk to your doctor if you are having any problems with alcohol or drugs. For more information on the connection between HIV and alcohol and drug use, read the AIDSinfo fact sheet on HIV and Drug and Alcohol Users.

What should I do if I need help or someone tells me I need help?

Talk to your doctor. Your doctor will consider whether any of your HIV medicines may be affecting your mental health. Your doctor can also help you find someone who has experience helping HIV-infected people with their mental health. For example:

  • Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and therapists can use therapy to help you cope with life challenges and mental health problems. (Psychiatrists can also prescribe medicines.)
  • Case managers can help you find mental health treatment, housing and transportation programs, domestic violence shelters, and child care.

Other ways to improve your mental health include:

  • Join a support group: A support group is a group of people who meet in a safe and supportive environment to provide support to each other. There are mental health support groups and HIV support groups.
  • Practice meditation: Research suggests that meditation can help lessen depression, anxiety, and stress. For more information on meditation, view the Meditation: In Depth website from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
  • Maintain healthy habits: Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy nutrition are important ways to take good care of yourself and can help when dealing with stressful situations.

To find mental health treatment services, use these resources from NIMH and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

How can I learn more about mental health?

Visit the websites below to learn more about mental health. This fact sheet is based on information from these sources:

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

From the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

From the Office on Women’s Health:

From the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

From the World Health Organization (WHO):

Need Help?

  • Call 1-800-448-0440
  • (1 p.m. to 4 p.m. ET)
  • Send us an email