a man on a hike

Ask the Advocates: Mental Health Awareness Month

During the month of May, we recognize Mental Health Awareness. Many PLWHIV (people living with HIV) can struggle with mental health issues related to their diagnosis, stigma, isolation, and disclosing to friends and family, among many other things.

We wanted to hear from our advocates about how they take care of their mental health. We want h-i-v.net to be a safe environment where people can ask questions about anything related to HIV.

How do you take care of your mental health?

"I take care of my mental health through guided meditation, Reiki, walking 10,000 steps per day, virtual support groups and talk therapy. I recently found three support groups, one for people living with HIV and a mental health disorder, another for Bisexuals and the third for Black Bisexual men. All of these new practices have strengthened my mental well-being." - Khafre

"Journaling, therapist in difficult times" - Ze

"The way I take care of my mental health is by going on hikes. There is a 10-mile hike called the Bridge to Nowhere and I love doing this with friends, my partner, or myself with some R&B music playing in my ears." - Steven

"To manage my mental health, I do take an antidepressant and antianxiety medication. I am not embarrassed to say I take prescriptions for my mental health. Personally, nothing beats the feeling of knowing you are actively improving yourself. Over time, I have learned to put myself first. Sometimes this requires me to have alone time to recharge. On the other hand, it also requires me to socialize some instead of isolating myself from everyone and everything. Luckily, I do have people in my life who will force some socialization onto me. One of the most important ways that I take care of my mental health is by saying NO to people. It took a lot of work for me to learn that it is okay to tell other people NO. It is not being selfish when you put yourself first; it is no different than following a diet to lose weight." - Heather Renee

"I love yoga, I love to sing (I do Cheryl Porter Vocal Exercises), the Calm App, Talking to friends and family when I'm feeling down, and learning how to do RETAIL THERAPY (tech gear)." - JT Otis

This or That

When feeling down, what helps you the most?

What advice do you have for someone seeking therapy?

"My advice for someone seeking therapy is to do your homework. Determine what your needs are and see if the therapist can help you meet those needs. For example, you may want to know if the therapist is familiar with HIV, it's stigma, is LGBTQ friendly, and aware of dealing with multiple mental health disorders." - Khafre

"Find a therapist you like." - Ze

"If someone is seeking therapy, I encourage them to continue on this journey. I think that therapy is a great way to express things in your life that you may keep bottled in. I would tell them not to be scared to switch therapists if you do not feel comfortable with them." - Steven Campa

"Find the right fit for you. Therapist are people and not everyone is a great fit. Be encouraged as you look for your support team and know that it's a journey to getting help (not an instant fix)." - JT Otis

This or That

Which type of therapy do you prefer?

What do you look for in a therapist?

"When I look for a therapist. I am seeking a compassionate, good listener, knowledgeable about HIV and someone who is LGBTQ friendly. I look for a safe place to fall and be vulnerable for 50 minutes per session." Khafre

"Similar backgrounds, knowledge in diagnosis, empathy" - Ze

"In a therapist, I look for someone who is trustworthy and makes me feel comfortable enough to open up to them." - Steven

"Honestly, I am a little picky when it comes to choosing a therapist.
It is important that the therapist has a background in dealing with my issues. I always use my first appointment with a new therapist as basically a job interview. One of the most important aspects to me is feeling a connection with the therapist. If I feel uncomfortable with the therapist, my therapy progress would be limited. At the end of the appointment, I want to feel like I was heard out but I also want to feel like my therapist provided some feedback. I do not mind having therapy homework because it helps me to remember to focus on my mental health between sessions." - Heather Renee

"I look for someone that is a great listener, and giving me a variety of resources to manage my circumstances. I also like a therapist that challenges me to do better but does it in a compassionate way. I like it when they lead me to making better decisions instead of telling me." - JT Otis

This or That

Do you like getting tasks or homework from your therapist?

In your opinion, what are mental health challenges that PLWHIV face?

"Mental health challenges which PLWHIV face are HIV related stigma, fear, isolation, depression, and anxiety. We face a great many unknowns about aging with HIV and what our future will look like." - Khafre

"Depression from stigma, diagnosis. Anxiety from unknown, and constant health." - Ze

"Mental health challenges that PLWHIV face is the feeling of not being looked at equally or having shame because of their status. PLWHIV may not have many people to talk to or disclose to which may in fact lead to more mental health issues." - Steven

This or That

What do you experience more?

For a person who has been newly diagnosed with HIV, what mental health challenges may they face?

"For someone newly diagnosed with HIV, they may face a number of challenges, like finding the right provider and the decision to begin care and treatment. They may face many questions about what impact this may have on their personal life, who can they share their diagnosis with and how to find support. They may face the challenge of how to pay for treatment and working with a case manager to navigate all of the paperwork and applications to receive care and treatment." - Khafre

"Self-Loathing" - Ze

"Some mental health challenges would be the fear of stigma which could take a toll on someone's mind and health." - Steven

"One of the first possible challenges is depression. The risk of depression can be even worse when the individual is not properly educated on today’s HIV. For many people, the diagnosis can feel like a life-ending sentence. Another big issue that some face since their diagnosis can be the difficulty in telling others about their diagnosis. This problem tends to be related to the lack of societal education and the stigma around HIV. There can be a lot of anxiety involved when it comes to disclosure because it risks losing some of the individual’s social circle. - Heather Renee

This or That

Since my diagnosis, my mental health has _____.

How do you cope with intrusive thoughts/memories/nightmares?

"I deal with intrusive thoughts/memories/nightmares by remembering to return to the breath. I go back to my guided meditation and the idea that thoughts are random and we can't control them. We can recognize the thoughts, acknowledge them and go back to the breath as a way of centering my mind." - Khafre

"Writing, talking to people who care" - Ze

"The way I deal with my thoughts is by writing them down and reading them to myself. I then ask myself did I really mean this and how can I work through it." - Steven

"I have Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder, also known as PTSD. While this is something that I am in therapy to manage, I still have intrusive thoughts and memories. These things are not easy to handle but it can be very important to stop what you are doing, take a deep breath, and refocus. The nightmares or night terrors can be overwhelming at first. I found it helpful to find a comfort item that would be available for me to reach out and grab. Personally, mine is my dog. When I come up from my sleep out of a nightmare, touching my dog (or him licking my face) helps me come back to reality. This shows me I am not still in that nightmare but in my bed. - Heather Renee

"I pray, some people may call it mediation, but I take some time to look at the thought and not run away from it, then let it go. I'm learning that facing it makes the negative thought silly and not in alignment with who I want to be and I let it go with grace." - JT Otis

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On a bad day, do you prefer to:

How would you answer some of these questions? Leave it in the comments or share your story here.

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