Mental Health, a Crucial Component to Ending HIV Epidemic


If mental health co-morbidities are not addressed among most vulnerable populations, it’s unlikely to achieve “90-90-90” goals or end the HIV epidemic.

Robert Remien, PhD, HIV Center for Clinical & Behavioral Studies, NYS Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University

Robert Remien, PhD, HIV Center for Clinical & Behavioral Studies, NYS Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University

Robert Remien, PhD

At the 25th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, Robert Remien, PhD, stressed in his presentation that addressing mental health is a critical component to ending the HIV epidemic and achieving the UNAIDS 90-90-90 goals.

Despite all of the medical advances made to this day, there are still significant gaps along the HIV care continuum. Mental health problems, including substance abuse are one of the most significant areas of co-morbidity for people living with HIV and are more prevalent than the general population.

Among adolescents and young adults living with HIV, more than 60% of the population have some type of mental disorder. An estimated 50% of people living with HIV meet criteria for one or more mental or substance use disorder, which is associated with suboptimal HIV treatment outcomes that includes late antiretroviral therapy (ART) initiation and a delayed viral suppression.

“We know that we need to do better at all of the steps on the continuum to achieve our desired goals for better health outcomes as well as reduce incidence,” Remien said. “Integration of services to screen and manage mental health and substance use disorders into HIV care settings is a promising strategy to improve mental health and HIV treatment outcomes among people living with HIV/AIDS, including in resource-constrained settings.”

Mental illness, according to Remien, is indeed a risk factor for HIV acquisition. In the US, the HIV prevalence among those with a serious mental illness (2—6%) compared to the general population (0.5%) is significantly higher.

Mental health impairment contributes to increased risk behaviors, delayed or lack of HIV testing and care initiation, poor retention in care, delayed ART initiation and poor ART adherence.

When there’s comorbid disorders, and other disorders, like mood disorders and alcohol and substance abuse, there’s a synergistic effect on HIV outcomes. In a study Remien discussed, that focused on 4295 men who have sex with men (MSM) from 6 US cities, when there are co-occurring conditions like depressive symptoms, heavy alcohol use, stimulant use, poly drug use and childhood sexual abuse, the probability of staying HIV negative decreases significantly as the number of conditions increases.

In the context of PrEP adherence, depression is associated with higher sexual risk behavior and poorer adherence, indicating that screening and treating may be key to maximizing PrEP efficacy.

Depression is associated with increased mortality, and mortality rates for those living with HIV having a major depressive disorder (MDD) is twice as high for those without MDD. Relatively large cohorts of women have been studied over time and found that depression is associated with 2—3 times risk of mortality, compared to women without depressive symptoms, when on ART.

In the US WIHS prospective cohort (n=858), chronic depressive symptoms were associated with >3 times the hazard of mortality (women on ART) and >7 times the hazard of mortality (women not on ART) compared to those on ART with no depression.

The stigma embodied in discriminatory social structures, policy and legislation results in a disparity between physical and mental health care services with lower accessibility, availability and quality of services.

Integration of screening and management services into HIV care settings is a promising strategy, according to Remien, to improve mental health and HIV treatment outcomes, including in resource-constrained settings.

Positive mental health is associated with improved physical health outcomes across a range of chronic illnesses, but in addition to negative psychological responses to an HIV diagnosis, disease progression, associated stigma and loss of social support, chronic inflammatory response to HIV is estimated to contribute to elevated rates of mental health problems among patients.

Treatment for mental disorders and adherence interventions has an additive effect to those with HIV, positively affecting HIV health outcomes like PrEp treatment, reducing depression and anxiety, and ultimately increasing quality of life.

Challenges remain, specifically for meeting the high demand in resource-limited settings where HIV is most prevalent. Addressing mental health co-morbidities in the context of HIV prevention and care is essential for achieving optimal outcomes along the prevention and treatment continua.

“We may have the biological tools to ‘end AIDS,’ however we will not be able to achieve ‘ending the epidemic’ (EtE) goals, if we do not address mental health co-morbidities among our most vulnerable populations,” Remien concluded. "Integrating mental health assessment and treatment into HIV care should be routine and is essential to achieving “90 90 90 and EtE goals.”

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