I decided to write about HIV/AIDS during Mental Health Month because whilst mental health and HIV/AIDS has a relationship, there are many other diseases and conditions with more of a relationship than HIV/AIDS and mental health. So more is talked about say, Alzheimer’s and mental health, Parkinson’s and mental health, menopause and mental health, etc.
As a neglected relationship I wanted to talk about the links with mental health and HIV/AIDS as much as anything, to be mindful of this fact; HIV/AIDS may be less of a world scourge than it was in the eighties and nineties but it has by no means gone. In fact, many who work in the field believe it is only a matter of time before the current cocktail that keeps HIV/AIDS as a manageable disease for the majority, will start to fail and require further research and medication. Additionally though we are on the cusp of a quasi-cure it would not in its current state, be do-able for the vast majority, most particularly, the poor. In addition, HIV/AIDS speaks to a larger issue, that of the continual zoonotic transmission of a disease from animals to humans (or equivalent).
Recent studies demonstrate, the rate by which potentially fatal pandemic diseases can be transferred interspecies, is far higher than previously thought. Researchers believe it is a matter of time before another HIV/AIDs style disease, will occur and spread. Whilst we may dismiss this as fear mongering, history shows us otherwise. Considering this and the history of HIV/AIDS the entire subject requires more in-depth analysis to ensure if this happens, all those infected are offered treatment rather than the select who can afford the Big Pharma monopoly prices.
If India had not stepped in, the ten million who died in Africa (and the number was in actuality far higher) would have continued to climb. If a Western country were to lose ten million to a disease, there is no way the monopoly of Big Pharma would have been permitted and as with the Anthrax scare the patent would have been lifted on the medication to ensure everyone had access to cheaper generic versions of the drug. India told this to the WHO years beforehand and offered to help those struggling countries like africa by supplying generic medication as less than one dollar a day, WHO and effectively, the Western world, ignored them and millions died.
Now the WHO and others are trying to force countries like India into not producing generic versions of existing medication in order to save lives. This at the behest of the already massively profiting pharmaceutical industries of the Western world. Profit it seems, literally comes before lives.
What does this have to do with mental health?
Having a disease like HIV/AIDS has a myriad of outcomes, not least a deleterious effect on our well-being and mental well being. Even if the disease is ‘managed’ the trauma of having a disease that is communicable, stigmatized and life-threatening, alongside the inevitable connection to sex, drugs, homosexuality and other stigmatized and judged things, causes a great deal of psychic stress.
When our bodies are unwell our minds are unwell.
Living with a disease like HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C can literally cause depression.
Surviving a disease like HIV/AIDS can cause similar issues known as ‘survivors guilt’ and the suicide rates both during the AIDS crisis AND afterward were extraordinarily high for this very reason.
Some people in power at the time felt that saving Africans was not a priority because quote; They would not know how to read the instructions on the medications, they would not take the medications properly, they would possibly cause the medication to work less effectively and even cause the virus to mutate and become resistant and put everyone else at risk’ so they chose to ignore the plight of Africa and other countries. It was essentially the worst kind of racist discrimination possible. On the other extreme, China did a disservice to their citizens by ignoring the problem saying they had no problem and thus, permitting no discussion or help.
Back to mental health. Imagine if you had HIV/AIDS today, would you feel ‘okay’ about it? Even if you had medication (with its side-effects) and you knew you may live a relatively normal life span? It would still affect you in so many ways, you would have to inform anyone you were intimate with, you would have to consider it when having children, you would have to let those you worked with and your insurance know. Even if you did not see it as a stigma, some people invariably would (because people love to judge) wouldn’t that cause at the very least, some anxiety and possibly other mental health issues?
A friend of mine contracted Hep C during college, he was deeply ashamed and despite therapy he ended up being celibate. That may be an extreme but it’s also one example of how illness, disease, viruses, and medical conditions can exacerbate mental health even when they don’t do so biologically like Parkinson’s does.
Many years ago after a sexual assault I was told my assaulter was HIV positive. I didn’t at that time have any idea of prophylactics for those exposed to HIV. Fortunately a professor of mine did and she told me where to go. I think to this day, if I had not met her, told her, and she had told me where to go, I may today be HIV positive. Maybe not a big deal if you are, but when you are not, a huge deal, which speaks to how people really feel about HIV/AIDS.
Taking the prophylactics which are basically the HIV/AIDS medication, for six weeks, demonstrated to me and gave me more empathy for, those who have to take them for the rest of their lives. They talk about how good they are at extending and maintaining life but they are rough on the body, and having to take quite a few every day, as well as the cost, is all round hard. I learned then, firstly never take your health for granted, secondly never judge someone else because you don’t know what they are going through and third, we in the Western world have an innate privilege that other countries do not have and we take it for granted.
The six-week supply of medication at the time cost around $3,000. Most of the world doesn’t earn that in a year.
This is going to happen again. And when it does, more will die and more will close their eyes to this because it’s not on their door step. We choose whom we empathize with and it’s almost a trend. If everyone else is donating we donate, if nobody cares, we don’t care, en mass this is our approach to charity and change.
HIV/AIDS hasn’t gone away. Other diseases will come that are possibly more devastating. It impacts entire generations, kills and destroys entire family trees, obliterates the ‘luxury’ of considering mental health fall out afterward because resources are so precious. Think now how many are dealing with mental health issues concerning the death of half of their families from HIV/AIDS and have no resources.
We see mental health treatment as a luxury because in many ways that’s what it is. And this is wrong. The domino effect of poor untreated mental health issues, causes loss of productivity and health, it is a vicious circle, if we ignore it, we do so with the knowledge ignoring it costs us more in the long run.
Stigma alone, social exclusion, judgement, blame, condemnation and fear, can strike illness in the heart of any sufferer. Suffering in silence, unable to share your diagnosis freely, even with the protection of the law, makes those with such diseases feel they are not the same as everyone else and in some ways that ‘secret’ they carry does set them apart. Imagine for a moment how that feels? Many of us cam emphasize somewhat, we may carry our own secrets, but that one is a pretty big secret and a heavy burden. We can help with that burden just by being good to those we meet, aware that we never know the extent of their burden.
When the next HIV/AIDS comes around, I hope everyone will stand up and demand that Big Pharma not prevent the treatment of all sufferers in all parts of the world. Your economic status or skin color do not reflect what your level of care should be. The only way this changes is if we, the people, change it by not ignoring what the inequality occurring in other parts of the world in part, due to our economic monopoly.