The mental health impact of HIV/AIDS on Black women and girls

HIV/AIDS and Presidential Advisory Council

By DIANE XAVIER

The Dallas Examiner

 

African American women and girls have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, accounting for 57% of new cases and diagnosis among women, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

To combat this issue, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS – known as PACHA – along with HIV.gov, hosted Live with Leadership, an online seminar conversation about the impact of HIV on women and girls, particularly Black, American Indian and Alaska Native populations on May 10.

Panelists included moderator, Kaye Hayes, acting director of the Department of Health and Human Service and executive director of PACHA; Tori Cooper, director of Community Engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative of the Human Rights Campaign; Laura Platero, JD, executive director of Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board; and Kayla Quimbley, National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day ambassador for Advocates for Youth and a member of PACHA.

Panelists also discussed how mental health ties in with HIV prevention and care, as well as their goals of ending the HIV epidemic and the strategies put in place to address HIV/AIDS.

“The national HIV/AIDS strategy identifies Black women and transgender women as priority populations,” Hayes said. “We also know that mental health plays a huge role in our work at HIV prevention, treatment and care and we are going to dive a little deeper into those conversations as well.”

There was also a discussion on the importance of properly identifying someone by their gender and pronouns.

“I was really happy to hear the call to emphasize transgender and gender diverse people in the HIV response,” Platero said. “We know that inclusion is important for both HIV prevention and mental health. Communication is so critical, including correct names and pronouns, which has a positive impact on the mental health of trans and gender diverse people.”

Cooper explained how the role and conversation about mental health has played into the work that she is doing.

“Remember, when you are your healthiest self, you are your best self and your healthiest self,” Cooper said. “It certainly includes your mental health, but it also includes your physical health and your sexual health and your emotional health and every other kind of health aspect that you can think of.

“Having access to low barrier, but highly effective mental health is really important for making sure that we’re bringing our whole selves as women into all of the aspects of our lives. That means just living your life every day. Perhaps even more important is that you are able to bring your old self because you’re not just fighting the apprentice, you’re also fighting a disease that some folks say is going to kill you. So, it’s important for your whole self to be as healthy as you possibly can be. For some folks, that means accessing mental health help when you need it.”

The panelists agreed that from a societal standpoint, women have to not only look out for themselves but also each other.

“In our work, we support the status neutral approach,” Platero said. “This approach to focus on mental health is woven into and overlaps many of the challenges and structural barriers that we face such as stigma, systemic racism, substance misuse, ensuring we’re getting culturally appropriate care, transphobia and the list goes on. For us, it’s really about addressing the root of the issue and knowing that when these things aren’t addressed, it does lead to mental health issues. So trying to create a structurally supportive environment for women and girls, which is part of the larger work we do with HIV. So for us, that has been the core of our work. We’ve been really working with a lot of programs across the Indian country and that is something that we see is so critically important to our work.

“I want to make sure everyone understands that we’re all on the same page. When someone comes into our care, they’re basically treated, essentially to me the way I like to see it, like a human being and that they are treated equitably, fairly with no discrimination, just kind of coming in and treated like you would treat anyone that is a human being coming into care seeking services.”

She said mental health is a serious issue and addressing it is a top priority for her organization. It provides a safe space where they can feel seen, heard and validated. She said its important to ask questions and assess barriers where they might exist, because those barriers may play a role in their mental health.

Quimbley said it is important to follow up on who come in and need services. She said sometime people underestimate the power of following up. But it’s important to remember that, though they are getting services, life is still happening. You never know what other things people are dealing with, so it’s important to check in; make a phone call and ask, “How they’re doing?”  or say “… since the last time we talked …” or “I see you missed an appointment.”

“And so, making sure to follow up because sometimes people just need to know that there’s someone there to support them, there’s someone there that cares. Keep people coming in and keep people engaged, knowing that they have support,” Quimbley said.

Cooper reminded the group that people living with HIV are regular people who have a chronic health condition.

“We’re realizing that trans women in this moment, we’re stronger when we fight together because we’re fighting against the same systems, we’re fighting against the patriarchy, and we’re fighting against having taken over the HIV care systems but we’re also here to make sure that people understand that stigma kills and as women, many of us deal with the shame, the same levels of shame,” Cooper said. “In that room, we take ownership over the stigma, perhaps around an HIV diagnosis. When you have less shame about that, then you’re able to be healthier sexually and you’re able to enjoy partnership with other folks and you’re able to enjoy your life.”

According to the latest data from the CDC, women ages 25 to 44 account for about half of all HIV diagnosis. The panelists discussed ways to reduce HIV diagnosis among women in that age range.

“One thing that I have noticed in working with young people is a lot of young people just don’t, they don’t know, or they don’t have the information that they need in order to equip themselves properly to protect themselves,” Quimbley said. “I think having conversations like this is very important because I’ve spoken to a lot of young women. I’m like well, hey, do you know about this? Do you know how to properly use a condom? As simple as it sounds, some information is very new to them. Some of this information is not as common as you would think it is. And so having these conversations is very important when we talk about that age range. We’re making sure that we’re educated as much as possible and as often as possible.”

Panelists also mentioned that in order to move forward and live longer and healthier lives, society needs to change the narrative on how they talk about Black and Brown women and not refer to them as stereotypes by race. Also, they recommended adding conflict resolution courses in junior high and high school so that students can handle conflicts better.

In order to reach more women, Quimbley concluded that providing women more resources would be a start.

“Allowing them to know what services are available for them, as well as extending yourself sometimes and sometimes you have to go the extra mile that reaches outside of whatever your job description necessarily is,” Quimbley said. “Set support groups and spaces for women to come together and band together with other women so that way they know that they’re not alone, that they are valid and how they feel in their experiences.”

 

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