If your doctor walked into the room and told you, “Your test came back positive; you have HIV,” how do you think you would you react to the news?
In 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 47,352 people were diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the United States. So if you have indeed heard those words from your doctor, you’re hardly alone.
Common Reactions to an HIV Diagnosis
Having been a therapist for many years, I have worked with individuals newly diagnosed with HIV, and the emotional reactions are often similar. Common reactions include:
- Shock and disbelief (even when the individual anticipated a positive result)
- Confusion about the next steps
- Sadness, fear, and shame
- Thoughts of wanting to harm oneself
These are all normal, and thus anticipated, reactions to life-changing news. Because of this, some state laws require that individuals taking an HIV test be provided on-site counseling after receiving their results, positive or negative.
Many newly diagnosed HIV-positive individuals report feeling depressed or being in a “brain fog” for the first few weeks after receiving the diagnosis. This is often the point at which someone will seek the assistance of a mental health provider. The individual may seek assistance on his or her own, or go at the behest of a loved one or medical professional. In either case, it has been my experience that the person will be unsure of just how a therapist can help.
Fortunately, there are numerous ways in which a mental health professional can assist a newly diagnosed individual.
What Can a Therapist Do for Me?
A therapist can provide a safe, confidential, and nonjudgmental environment in which the newly diagnosed person can share and process his or her feelings. The counselor’s office is a place where people can bring questions such as:
- Is my life over?
- Who do I have to tell I have HIV? Do I have to tell anyone I have HIV?
- Is it OK to feel scared and depressed?
By “normal,” the person in therapy usually means feeling safe, empowered, able to make sound decisions, and having an ongoing support system in place. These are all things that therapy can help the HIV-positive individual achieve.As noted earlier, feeling scared and confused is a common reaction to receiving an HIV diagnosis. However, these are feelings that, over time, with therapy, likely will abate. Several factors facilitate this shift.
In my experience, the biggest and most common factor has been a sense of empowerment for the individual. Empowerment can come about from sharing fears and concerns with the therapist, learning about HIV/AIDS and forms of treatment, and connecting with other HIV-positive individuals.
Due to real or perceived stigma, the therapist may be the only source of support the newly diagnosed person has. This is becoming less common as information about HIV/AIDS becomes more prevalent and people become more educated about what it means to live with HIV, as many people do indefinitely. Still, a good therapist can be not only a source of emotional support, but also a source of accurate information about HIV and AIDS, and can provide referrals to medical treatment and support groups.
Will My Life Ever Be the Same Again?
Newly diagnosed people frequently want to know when their lives will return to “normal.” “I want to feel like my old self again,” is a common sentiment. One’s life typically will not be exactly the same as it was before the HIV diagnosis, but therapy can help the person in treatment reach a “new normal” in his or her life.
By “normal,” a person in therapy often means feeling safe, empowered, able to make sound decisions, and having a reliable support system in place. These are all things that therapy can help an HIV-positive individual achieve. Such results may not happen quickly, but finding a therapist the individual trusts can hasten the process.
Quick results should not be the main goal. Newly diagnosed people often feel a sense of urgency in wanting their lives to return to normal as soon as possible, which is certainly understandable. However, it is important to know that this is a process; in order to be done correctly and to be successful, the process will take time and dedication.
Numerous times, people in my care have shared with me that they never felt more afraid and upset than they did on the day they learned their HIV-positive status. Nearly all also noted, in several months time, that therapy had helped them regain a sense of peace, control, and hope. What seemed so impossible after first receiving life-changing news had again become possible.