There has been a tremendous improvement in reducing the number of new HIV infections. But as the milestones are celebrated, there is now the question about the people who are directly or indirectly affected by HIV and the challenges they are confronted with. How does HIV impact on mental health in the family?
Sonia* not her real name knows this only too well. She is 17 years of age and in her final year of secondary education.
“I was confused, and that night, I tried suicide at the dormitory, but unfortunately (fortunately), I was caught by the prefect on duty who then informed the boarding mistress. The following day I summoned and I had to be escorted home for more counselling. That is when my mother opened up to me that I was born HIV positive”, narrates Sonia.
Her story begun during a blood donation drive.
“I discovered I was positive while in form 1, during school blood donation day. I was called in the office by the principle and the doctors who had come for the blood donation drive. I was asked several personal questions then I was counselled and advised to test for HIV. It turned out positive”.
The news hit her hard. She tried taking her own life several times. Dr Judith Saina is a psychologist in Moi teaching and referral hospital working at the mental illness department. According to her, HIV and mental health are described as having bi-directional relationships.
“The effects of living with HIV/AIDS or having an affected family member can increase the risk for mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Sometimes it becomes difficult for the affected person or the family members to accept that a person is infected. Most of them live in denial, a condition that in most cases leads to depression which is a mental illness”, Dr Saina says.
There is a lot to celebrate in Kenya as it is has been a huge prevention success story in the region. It was one of the first to approve the use of PrEP (PrePre-Exposure Prophylaxis). As a result, new infections have fallen dramatically in recent years. These gains, to continue bearing fruit, there is a need for a multifaceted approach to keep the momentum. Experts say, dealing with mental health issues is one of the solutions.
According to Dr Nancy Cheben from Ampath, Moi Teaching and referral hospital Eldoret, poor mental health can lead to habits which put individuals at risk for HIV.
“Most families have registered psychological trauma in relation to HIV/AIDS in children. This has led to parental depression, hopelessness, and risky behaviours such as drug abuse which may, in turn, lead to increased mental health problems for both the caretakers and the children”, Says Dr Nancy.
The challenges are compounded by the fact that stigma among children is still rampant in society. ”This is because there is little awareness in the community understanding on the impact that HIV has on mental health”, adds Dr Nancy.
According to her, there are ways the society can help reduce the number of children infected by HIV;
- Pregnant women should know their status and open up during antenatal
- Mothers are advised to give birth in hospitals in order to prevent mother to child infection.
- Children should be taught to open up especially when they are sexually harassed
- Behaviours like drug abuse among children should be discouraged especially among teenagers.
- During pregnancy, a mother should diligently take her antiretroviral drugs in order to reduce the viral load.
- Open up to teenagers on how HIV/AIDS is transmitted from one person to another so as to create awareness.
Dr Nancy advises that in order to prevent or manage the ongoing risks among children, and contribute to early prevention and promoting resilience in HIV, the community should understand that HIV is not a death sentence.
It is important to understand the full range of processes with the potential to increase resilience in HIV/AIDS affected children and to use this knowledge to develop interventions that may be implemented at different levels.