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Mental illness rates high among hard-to-reach people with HIV/AIDS in B.C.: Study

More than half of people in the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS’s drug treatment program have suffered from mental illness

A nurse educator at Vancouver General Hospital prepares to draw blood for an HIV test.


A nurse educator at Vancouver General Hospital prepares to draw blood for an HIV test.

Addressing the underlying mental health issues of harder-to-reach people with HIV/AIDS is important for treatment, a British Columbia researcher says.

The B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) studied 916 participants in its drug treatment program from 2007 to 2010 and found that more than half (54 per cent) reported having a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.

The rate of mental illness among people with HIV is two to 10 times higher that the general population’s, according to previous research.

BC-CfE research scientist Dr. Robert Hogg told Metro that mood (85 per cent) and anxiety (65 per cent) disorders were the most common mental health conditions among the group.

The study defines “harder to reach” people as those with HIV/AIDS who use illicit drugs, have other health complications or are from vulnerable populations, such as women or Indigenous people, who can experience significant barriers to treatment for the disease.

“We were just amazed at the rate of concurrent illness with mental health-related issues,” said Hogg. “We wanted to make sure people are aware. People [dealing with mental illness] may not be accessing therapy or addressing their mental health concerns. Certainly, that’s an important thing to deal with.”

While dealing with concurrent illnesses is vital to ensuring the health of people with HIV/AIDS, the good news, according to Hogg, is that HIV/AIDS treatment adherence for people who are in the program and suffer from mental illness was roughly the same as those who don’t have a mental health illness.

“What it tells me is how resilient people are. They deal with a lot of life issues, ones that I don’t think I would be able to deal with,” said Hogg. “In a lot of these cases, you want to deal with these underlying issues and others, like housing, that have an impact on people’s progression later on or how well they keep on therapy. Underlying factors like mental health could play a role in making them surviving longer or living healthier lives.”

The study was published last week in the journal AIDS Care.

Monday marks the start of Mental Illness Awareness Week.

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