According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV. In 2017, 38,739 people received an HIV diagnosis, and when they first heard the word “positive,” many were thrust into feelings of anger, sadness, denial and fear.
“There are some people who suspect they are HIV-positive but go a very long time without testing, and then there are other people who test for whatever reason and turn out positive,” says Mallory Johnson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of California–San Francisco School of Medicine and co-director of the NIH-funded Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. “Those tend to be the extremes of the experience.” Disbelief and shock, Johnson says, are the most common responses.
Of those living with the virus in the U.S., about 14%, or 1 in 7, are unaware of their infection. HIV weakens the immune system by destroying cells meant to combat infection and disease; AIDS is the final stage of the infection, when the immune system has been severely damaged. Not all HIV-positive individuals will develop AIDS – antiretroviral therapies and other medications now allow people with the virus to live long, healthy lives.
Still, receiving a chronic diagnosis like HIV is likely to produce emotional distress. Here’s a look at the toll such a diagnosis takes, as well as how patients can tend to their psychological health.