Hand in hand: Mental health and HIV

The month of May is mental health awareness month which affords community organizations and individuals all across the globe to talk about the little-talked-about topic. One story in which I found inspiration appeared in the Washington Post: the story of Prince Harry who recently found the courage to disclose his lifelong struggle with mental health following his mother’s death. This story resonated with me not just because Prince Harry and I are both red-heads, but also because we both lost our mothers at young ages and both sought the support of mental health professionals. The prince is now promoting a campaign which aims to spur dialogue about mental health, and while one’s loss is never the same as another’s, I wish to join him in his crusade to destigmatize it. 

At San Francisco AIDS Foundation, we know that stigma and shame have real effects on our health, and every day, we bear witness to the powerful link between mental health, substance use, sex and HIV. 

In an article featured on our website this month, Stonewall Project director Mike Discepola describes how traumas commonly experienced by men who have sex with men early in life might contribute to mental health challenges later on. Stress factors like these can lead us to self-medicate, and that resulting substance use can increase HIV risk, intensify mental health symptoms, and affect adherence to HIV treatment.1 

Through the Stonewall Project, gay, bi and trans men looking to address their relationship with alcohol or other substances can enroll in an outpatient substance use treatment program that integrates mental health, HIV and overall sexual health. Guided by our on-staff psychiatrist, counselors empower participants to achieve the substance use goals that they define for themselves. At our 6th Street Harm Reduction Center, community members access safer injection supplies that reduce the risk of HIV and hepatitis C transmission, as well as gain access to drop-in and ongoing mental health services from our partners at the Harm Reduction Therapy Center, San Francisco Department of Public Health and Glide Harm Reduction Services. 

We also know that feelings of loneliness or hopelessness challenge our mental health. Depression, trauma and other factors that influence our state of mind affect our ability to engage in self-care. 

Our community engagement programs like Black Brothers Esteem, Bridgemen, the DREAAM Project, the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, Programa Latino, Positive Force, and TransLife focus on combatting social isolation and the myriad factors that negatively affect our mental health. These programs promote community connection and social support through workshops, social events and peer support groups where participants learn about risk reduction and treatment adherence. 

The programs I have described here are just the beginning of the conversation. Find more information about the Stonewall Project and other services of San Francisco AIDS Foundation on our Mind & Body resources page. You can also call us at (415) 487-3100, or stop by Strut, 470 Castro Street, San Francisco, to speak with a concierge for more information.


Joe Hollendoner, CEO

San Francisco AIDS Foundation

1.    thebody.com. “Interventions crafted for those struggling with mental health and HIV adherence show promise, report states.” 27 June 2014. http://www.thebody.com/content/74684/interventions-crafted-for-those-struggling-with-me.html

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