We’ve come a long way when it comes to HIV and AIDS misinformation. But the stigma and discrimination surrounding the conditions during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s still lingers today. For patients, the impact can be devastating — not only can medical biases and discrimination lead to medical mistreatment, but it can also be detrimental to their mental and physical well-being.
“People living with HIV often internalize the stigma they experience and begin to develop a negative self-image,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “They may fear they will be discriminated against or judged negatively if their HIV status is revealed.”
For the LGBTQ+ community, who are disproportionately affected by the disease, we are constantly fighting against this stigma. Here are six ways to combat it.
Educate yourself and others
It’s to your and their advantage to know the facts. Discrimination is rooted in ignorance about the virus and how its spread.
Stopping misinformation first starts with educating yourself — and maybe your support group — about the virus. Contact local public health professionals such as Ruth Ellis Center (REC), Corktown Health or Affirmations about HIV/AIDS information, counseling and testing.
“Over the last 40 years, HIV has evolved into a treatable chronic disease,” says Maureen Connolly, medical director at REC. “In my mind as a provider, [HIV is] on par with something like diabetes or something like asthma, where, yes, it does require attention, and it does require care, but people can live really long, healthy lives.”
Know your rights
Those with HIV or AIDS are protected under federal laws. Unfortunately, there aren’t many, but laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act offer solace in the workplace, the housing market and other settings. For example, ADA requires employers to accommodate employees with disabilities such as HIV/AIDS.
“Persons who are discriminated against because they are regarded as being HIV-positive are also protected,” according to the Department of Justice website. “For example, the ADA would protect a person who is denied an occupational license or admission to a school on the basis of a rumor or assumption that he has HIV or AIDS, even if he does not.”
Open up to those you trust
Not everyone needs to know your HIV status. That, of course, is something that you get to disclose based on your timing.
Before divulging that information, sit down and think about who you trust enough to share your status. For some, that decision is easy, but for others, culture, religion or medical mistrust stops them from disclosing even the possibility of being exposed. Although it’s stressful, having open conversations about HIV and AIDS is an enormous relief, no matter your status. Even reaching out to trusted medical professionals offers help.
“What I find to be really challenging is [that] the stigma on HIV and AIDS is stuck in the ‘90s,” Connolly says. “The way people feel about it. The emotions around it really do not reflect reality anymore. If someone is living with HIV and is on treatment, [and] the virus in their body is really low, then they can’t pass it on through sex… If people are taking care of themselves, then they’re taking care of their partner.”
Seek safe support
Support can be as simple as someone willing to hold your hand during a difficult day. It doesn’t take much. However, knowing that help is available from a safe, comforting person can make a significant positive impact on patient health..
According to a study conducted by National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), emotional support has “powerful health benefits for people living with HIV.” These benefits include: “less depression, positive health behaviors such as adherence to medication, improved coping and quality of life and slower progression of the disease to AIDS.”
If you’re not comfortable seeking comfort from friends and family, locate a public health department to find HIV/AIDS support groups or a counselor. If you’re lucky enough to have a close network, then consider volunteering to help dismantle some fears.
Become an advocate
This one may be hard for those who just received their diagnosis. But for those who’ve been battling the virus for years: consider working in politics. It’s probably one of the best ways to counter the circulating stigmas and discrimination on HIV and AIDS.
Contact your primary care physician or a local clinic to get a test. According to Kyle Taylor, development and community relations manager at Affirmations, one of the best ways to combat HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination is to use their free testing services. He suggests utilizing the partnership resources Affirmations shares with Matrix Mac Health, Unified and the Oakland County Health Department to get counseling or to get information, especially for those facing a new diagnosis.