World AIDS Day is quickly approaching. On December 1st people from all walks of life will come together to raise awareness about an illness that has plagued over 78 million souls since first being defined by the CDC in 1982.
HIV may have changed from a death sentence to a chronic disease over the past 30 years but that in no way means this horrific disease isn’t still taking lives. In 2014 approximately 1.2 million people worldwide died as a result of AIDS, contributing to the whopping 39 million deaths attributed to AIDS since the start of the epidemic in the 1980’s. There is still no cure and that is something that we as a society must not forget. Despite being a chronic illness, having a HIV positive status brings about many obstacles that individuals affected by the virus are forced to face.
The diagnosis weighs on patient’s mental health, as does any disease. However, when faced with the stigma of silence and isolation swirling around both HIV and mental illness patients are faced with a double stigma which can cause their mental health to decline at an alarming rate. Bridging Access to Care (BAC) is a non-profit organization in Brooklyn, New York that specializes in assisting with the care management of individuals affected by HIV/AIDS. A part of their organization includes mental health services. They offer diagnostic testing and screening for all their clients to identify any underlying mental illnesses. Glenda G. Smith, the Executive Director of BAC, reports that the vast majority of their clients show signs of various forms of mental illness. Many, unfortunately, choose to not seek help. Instead they cope alone and in silence about not only their HIV diagnosis but also the mental trauma associated with it.
There is a vicious cycle between mental illness and HIV/AIDS that not many people recognize. Many people can understand why the overwhelming stress and emotional shock of a HIV diagnosis can lead to a mental health crisis but what people are not seeing is the reverse scenario. People suffering from a mental illness often cope with risky behaviors including promiscuity and drug use, which are two major contributors to the contraction of the HIV virus.
BAC has also discovered an upsetting trend among their clients. Many of them have a history of trauma or abuse prior to their diagnosis and this is a correlation that cannot be ignored. Because of this, BAC is working towards creating a 100% trauma informed environment where all staff members are trained to recognize and respond to signs of trauma, abuse or PTSD in order to better assist and serve their clients. All of these factors lead to yet another obstacle that HIV/AIDS individuals are forced to face and that is housing.
There are a disproportionate number of people living with HIV/AIDS that are homeless compared to individuals who are not affected by the virus. The Housing Placement Assistance Program is a BAC program that has been struggling to find appropriate housing for their clients. Due to gentrification in Brooklyn, the amount of available low-income housing opportunities has declined. Many of the remaining housing goes to Living in Communities (LINC), which is a New York City program that offers housing assistance to individuals living in shelters. Many HIV positive individuals do not qualify for LINC benefits. This is because many people with HIV receive assistance from the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), a program that provides assistance and several public benefits to individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately if someone is receiving assistance from HASA they do not qualify for LINC housing. Because of this many HIV positive individuals are excluded from a lot of housing opportunities they desperately need.
If it doesn’t already seem like the cards are stacked against individuals affected by this virus and subsequent disease, there is an enormous issue regarding the stigma surrounding HIV itself and the education that the younger population has regarding the reality of this disease, which is nothing short of extremely alarming. Young adults who were born in the 90’s or later did not witness the horrific reality of HIV and how ruthlessly it took lives with no mercy and no discrimination. Their viewpoint of what it is like to live with HIV is distorted now that it is considered a chronic illness.
There have been instances of people reaching out to other individuals who are HIV positive in an attempt to get infected. They are intentionally trying to contract the virus. This is not by any means an opinion shared by all sexually active individuals. However, there are individuals who engage in high risk behaviors that have the mindset that they will most likely contract the virus at some point in their lives and are trying not to avoid what they feel is the inevitable. There are also some individuals who believe that unprotected sexual intercourse with a HIV positive partner will in some way increase intimacy and form a closer relationship. What they do not realize is the enormous toll that HIV and AIDS takes on individuals physically, mentally and emotionally. The fact is this is still a disease that people are dying from.
In honor of World AIDS Day it is time these issues that people who are affected by HIV/AIDS face are brought into light for the world to see. Knowing that HIV is out there is not enough. It is time our society comes together with compassion, support and acknowledgment towards the overwhelmingly large demographic affected. The stigma that is holding these people back comes down to a lack of education, a lack of understanding and most importantly a lack of discussion. It is time that we start a conversation about HIV and AIDS that can help tear down the walls that stigmas and stereotypes have put into place.
Bridging Access to Care is hosting a fundraiser on World AIDS Day, December 1st, Saving Our Homes, Saving Our Lives.
You can show your support and donate to this amazing cause here: Donation Link