You know your HIV viral load but do you know what affects mental health?

Almost every person faces mental health challenges at some point and it’s important to know that you are not alone. Here you can find information about HIV-related factors which may affect mental health and lifestyle choices which you can consider to help you enjoy lifelong good health with HIV.

Read below to find out more about:

  • The effect that HIV and related medications can have on mental health
  • Real-life stories about living with HIV, the mental health challenges that Graeme and Marcello have faced including who and what have supported them along the way
  • What to do if you are experiencing mental health challenges

To help you plan for your next appointment and helpful questions to ask, go to What To Ask for tips and downloadable questions.

What do I need to know?



Lifestyle choices that can have a negative impact on mental health are more common among people who are living with HIV. This can include drinking a lot of alcohol, smoking, or taking recreational drugs. Talk to your healthcare team about what you can do to keep positive lifestyle choices. There are many changes you can make to ensure your mind stays as healthy as possible.


In rare cases, the HIV virus itself can have a physical effect on your brain, as the virus is able to enter the brain and central nervous system shortly after initial infection. Over time, this may result in a condition called HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND), which has a wide range of symptoms including, short attention span, memory loss, headaches, mood swings, poor judgement, confusion, and even weakness in the limbs. Talk to your healthcare team about whether screening checks are needed.


In some patients, medicines used to treat HIV are associated with an increased risk of mental health problems or sleep issues. It is important to discuss how you are feeling with your healthcare team on a regular basis, as depressive or anxious episodes can come and go and they may need to review your treatment plan.

More about mental health


Almost every person faces mental health challenges at some point and they can feel just as bad, or worse, as any other physical illness – only you cannot see it. Major stresses – like a long-term illness – can have an impact on mental health. Common mental health challenges include depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and personality disorders.

Typical symptoms can include:

  • Depression: fatigue or feeling slow and sluggish, problems concentrating, low sex drive, problems sleeping, feeling guilty, worthless, or hopeless, decreased appetite or weight loss, overeating
  • Anxiety: restlessness, a sense of dread, feeling constantly "on edge", difficulty concentrating, irritability
  • Sleep problems: difficulty falling or staying asleep (insomnia)

The good news is that depression and anxiety can be diagnosed and treated. Antidepressants and psychotherapy are both effective in treating depression and counselling can help to identify triggers and reduce anxious feelings.

Get assessed at each appointment. This will help you get diagnosed quickly and linked to the right support. You might not recognise the signs immediately so there are screening tools your healthcare team can use to check your mental health.

Can HIV cause mental health problems?


Depression, anxiety and many other mental health conditions can affect anyone, at any time in their life, regardless of whether they are HIV positive or not. In fact approximately 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime.

Factors that can cause mental health problems include:

  • Environmental factors: such as a direct response to what is happening in someone’s life, for example work changes, money worries, relationship breakdowns, illness or bereavements
  • Physical factors: such as your brain’s biology, having a family history of the condition or the physiological impacts of living with a long-term health condition such as HIV and the use of some medications to treat it

As mental health problems are common for everyone, it’s complex to define the exact impact HIV has on mental health. Regardless of this, many people living with HIV can experience them at diagnosis, as well as later on in life. Common causes of anxiety and depression include concerns regarding the future such as how your health, lifestyle and relationships may be affected.

It’s important to be open with your healthcare team about how you are feeling emotionally so they can help you identify any signs as early as possible.


Your healthcare team can work with you to assess your mental health by doing some of the following:  

  • Check for symptoms associated with depression and anxiety
  • Ask how you are sleeping. Some studies have shown that people living with HIV are more likely to have sleep problems such as insomnia
  • Although most people are not affected, they may check for a condition called HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND), which has a wide range of symptoms including, short attention span, memory loss, headaches, mood swings, poor judgement, confusion, and even weakness in the limbs)
  • Review all medication you are taking, including your HIV medications, as some medicines have been linked to depression or sleep problems

It is important to acknowledge your feelings and if you need additional support, seek help, as it can help to reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life.


Living with a mental health problem isn’t easy but there are lifestyle changes you can make, such as:

  • Eating well
  • Being physically active
  • Limiting your alcohol intake
  • Limiting your caffeine intake


Talking therapies and coping techniques can be useful as well as talking to a psychologist or mental health specialist. You may also want to consider alternative treatments such as mindfulness, which means living in the moment, to improve you mental wellbeing. Reviewing and changing the medications you take could also help. 

Talking to your healthcare team is important. They will be able to guide you on your mental health and will be aware of any additional things to think about, such as:

  • How you can change your lifestyle to improve your mental health
  • How different drugs work together and if they will interfere with your HIV medicines (i.e. trigger any side-effects as a result of taking both medicines)
  • Whether your HIV medication is having a negative impact on your mental health
Quick Quiz
Which of the following statements are true?



  1. Speak to your healthcare team
    And discuss the symptoms you are experiencing
  2. Talk to your healthcare team about cognitive behavioural counselling
  3. Surround yourself with positive people
    Such as a strong friendship or family network or join a club, class or support group
  4. Talk things over with someone who can be trusted
  1. Look after yourself
    By eating well, being physically active and limiting your alcohol and caffeine intake
  2. Do not try to take alcohol or recreational drugs
    To help with mental health problems such as insomnia
  3. Consider relaxation techniques
    Such as meditation, massage or mindfulness
  4. Sit outside in the sunlight
    As this can help improve depression symptoms
  1. Use a sleeping app
    To monitor your sleep quality and explore ways to improve it
  2. Value yourself
    Treat yourself with kindness, avoid self-criticism and make time for your hobbies and favourite projects
  3. Talk to your healthcare team about antidepressant medication
    And whether this is a suitable option for you
  4. Download apps that can help you monitor your health
    Such as recording your eating habits or staying on top of your general wellbeing