How to Disclose to Friends, Family, & Loved Ones
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2019 | Last updated: October 2019
If you are living with HIV, the thought of disclosing, or telling, your status to others may be incredibly overwhelming and scary. These are completely normal feelings to have. Although disclosing your HIV status may be required in some situations, such as to sex or drug-injecting partners depending on where you live, there are many other situations in which sharing your status is completely up to you.
Why should I tell others about my HIV status?
Not everyone needs to know about your status, especially if they are not engaging in behaviors with you that could lead to virus transmission. However, enlisting the support of others, specifically individuals who love, trust, and respect you can be critical in creating a strong social network. Having a strong network of people who understand what you are going through and who you feel you don’t need to hide anything from may help you cope with some of the overwhelming feelings that can accompany living with HIV, including mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Having a strong network may also help you feel more empowered and supported in your HIV treatment journey and future, leading to better treatment adherence and outcomes.1
Common tips for conversations about HIV status
Despite these benefits, who you tell amongst your family, friends, and loved ones is completely up to you. If you do have a strong relationship with a friend, family member, or loved one and decide to tell them about your status and add them to your support network, there are some tips you can try to help the conversation go as smoothly as possible.
Feel confident in your mutual trust and respect
When deciding whether or not to disclose your status, consider whether or not the person you are disclosing to respects and trusts you as much as you respect and trust them. Although HIV-related conversations can be alarming and have strong emotions or reactions, a foundation of trust and respect between you and the person you are talking to will help the conversation go as smoothly as possible and help ensure that your status stays private between the two of you (if that’s what you prefer). If you do not trust someone you’re considering telling or think they will disrespect you by stigmatizing you or sharing your information, it may be a better idea to avoid telling them at this time.
Test the waters first if need be
If you are uncomfortable diving right into a conversation about your HIV status, it may be a good idea to drop hints to bring the topic up briefly before disclosing. Asking questions like “do you know anyone with HIV?” or “have you been tested for HIV?” may open up a smaller-scale conversation before you share your status. You may be surprised by their responses, and some may be positive. If their initial responses are negative and you still want to open up to them, it may be necessary to tailor your approach or consider other options. Another possible idea is to practice role playing with a trusted family member, friend, or therapist beforehand to prepare for different responses and reactions you may receive while disclosing.
Seek outside, professional support
As mentioned, a mental health professional, including a therapist, counselor, or other trusted individual, may be helpful in role playing situations and practicing what you want to say before having a conversation about your status with someone else. Not only can a therapist help you prepare for these important and sometimes overwhelming conversations, but they can also be there in the event you experience issues. In some situations, disclosing your status may not go exactly as you planned, or you may not get the reaction you were hoping for. If this happens and you are feeling rejection, disappointment, or fear (among many other potentially overwhelming emotions), a mental health professional can help.
Disclose as early as possible
Although it may be hard to do, and may not always be possible, disclosing as soon as you feel safe and comfortable doing so may be beneficial. The sooner you start creating your network of love and support, the sooner you will be able to reap its benefits. You do not need to manage your HIV journey alone and minimizing the time where you are the only one who knows can help you best cope with your diagnosis.
Create a positive and safe environment
When you disclose your status, you get to choose where and when you do so. Making sure to set aside a time where the two of you can talk uninterrupted is important in facilitating a positive conversation. The person you are disclosing to might need time to process this information, or may have questions for you. Making sure you have ample time to talk and are in a setting where sensitive issues can be discussed is important. If you are worried about the reaction of the person you’re disclosing to, especially if you are worried that they may get violent or abusive, it may be a good idea to find a semi-public place, just to be safe. Finding somewhere that you can talk in private, while still being in view of others nearby (such as in a public park) may be a good idea to prevent any dangerous reactions.
You can also disclose with your healthcare provider present if you feel more comfortable doing that. However, no matter what, if you are ever physically threatened or hurt by another individual, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233).
Be prepared to provide information and options
You may receive many questions or misconceptions about HIV when you disclose to someone. It is natural for them to have this response, and it’s helpful for you to be open to providing them with the correct information. The more information you are armed with during your discussion, the better. Educating them on what HIV actually is and how it is spread may be helpful in opening up productive dialogue around HIV.
Remain open to regular check-ins
It’s important to remember that opinions might change when it comes to HIV and the disclosure of someone’s HIV status. This may mean that someone who was initially hesitant, angry, or confused during your conversation may take time to process and feel more open and encouraged later on when it comes to your status. Conversely, someone who may have been open to the conversation when you first disclosed may become confused or wary later on. Having regular check-ins and conversations on the topic of HIV may help navigate changes in opinions, questions, and concerns as they arise. The conversation around HIV is not a one-and-done issue, and may need to be revisited on multiple occasions for everyone involved to feel respected and heard.2-5