Safe sex isn’t only good for your physical health -- it can do wonders for your mental health, too. By protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like HIV, you may be able to guard your mental health.
That can be hard because the issues of HIV and mental health seem to go hand in hand.
Mental health problems are higher in people at risk for HIV as well as those who have it.
Research links poor mental health to a higher risk for getting HIV. Some people develop mental health issues because they’re scared of getting HIV, while others may get them as a result of having HIV. If you have a mental health issue, it may stop you from getting tested, receiving results, seeking or getting care, and continuing your care.
By taking action to protect yourself from getting or transmitting HIV, you may improve your mental health overall.
How Is Mental Health Linked to STIs?
You may be nervous about getting an STI and experience anxiety around actions that can put you at risk, like having sex or sharing needles. Some people may avoid those actions altogether. Others may feel anxiety after doing them. Anxiety or depression symptoms can also pop up while you’re waiting for test results. Some people have mental health symptoms because they’re worried about potential stigma that can come with having an infection. African American men and women, as well as gay and bisexual men -- those who are at a higher risk for HIV -- may have a higher risk for depression, too. This, in turn, may lead some people to engage in actions known to increase the risk of getting HIV.
Being diagnosed with an STI -- especially HIV -- can also trigger symptoms of various mental health disorders. Depression, for example, is one of the most common mental health ailments affecting people with HIV. People who are HIV-positive have twice the risk for depression than those who are at risk for HIV but don’t already have it.
Not only does having HIV or AIDS affect your mental health, they can have repercussions on your physical health as well. Specifically, having HIV and depression is linked to not sticking with treatment. This can affect your long-term health outcomes and quality of life.
Are There Phobias Related to HIV and STIs?
While there’s no official phobia for getting HIV or AIDS, there are a few phobias related to them. Venereophobia. Someone who is venereophobic has a fear of getting an STI after having unprotected sex. Nosophobia. This is a fear of getting a long-lasting disease like AIDS. Hypochondria. While similar, this phobia is defined as having a fear of getting any illness.
Can Fear of an STI Make Me Physically Sick?
Yes. Some people develop somatic symptom disorders from worrying about their health. This means you’ll have physical symptoms like pain, shortness of breath, or weakness. A doctor may not be able to connect the symptoms to any other diagnosis, but you continue to believe you’re sick.
One report looked closely at people who experienced physical symptoms after having sex because they were afraid it gave them an STI. It’s different than other illness-related anxieties because you have physical symptoms.
How Can I Protect Myself From HIV to Support My Mental Health?
Physically protecting yourself may put you at ease so you don’t worry about getting HIV or giving it to others. (And it can give you mental peace of mind, too.)
Use condoms, abstain from sex, don’t share needles, or consider a PrEP or PEP medication to prevent yourself from getting HIV. If you know you’re being safe, that may put your mind at ease.
Even though mental health issues may keep you from going on or staying on PrEP, research shows that being on it can empower you to be in control of your health and lower the anxiety you may have about getting HIV. In fact, because PrEP essentially gets rid of the risk for getting HIV if you take it correctly, taking it has lowered anxiety and depression in some people.
Research also shows that taking PrEP encourages people to get screened and treated for mental and physical health issues.
If you’re HIV-positive, you can keep a low amount of virus (or undetectable viral load) so you can’t transmit HIV through sex. An undetectable viral load also lowers the risk that you’ll give HIV to others through injection equipment. You can take medication to do this in addition to keeping yourself healthy. If you can’t keep your viral load undetectable, you can take other measures to lower the risk of giving HIV to others, like using condoms or asking your partner(s) to take preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) medications.
If you have HIV, taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) can help you live a long life. It may ease your anxiety by giving you a sense of security, help you feel better if you know that you can’t transmit HIV to others, or ease feelings of shame from stigma.
Here are some more ways to support your mental health:
Communicate. Be honest with health care professionals so they can help you make educated health care decisions. Be open with your partner(s) about your STI status and important details about past partners. Those conversations may not be comfortable, but they’ll get you talking about prevention and care.
Discuss these things in order to stay legally protected, too. Some states require you to share your HIV status with sex or injection partners.
Find the right treatment. Some antiretroviral medications may cause anxiety and depression and interrupt your sleep. They may make some mental health issues worse, but not taking them may do the same. Talk to your health care professional to see what’s right for you -- and if you can ease any side effects and stay on your medicine(s).
Seek help. Going to a therapist is one way to improve your mental health. You may want to choose a provider who openly welcomes people in the LGBTQ+ community so you have a like-minded therapist.