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Coping With an HIV Diagnosis

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Cynthia Teeters, MSW
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Testing positive for the HIV virus often generates profoundly difficult and confusing feelings. Shock, sadness, fear, and even relief are not uncommon emotional responses to an HIV diagnosis, and there is no right or wrong reaction. For those first diagnosed with the virus, it is important to remember that HIV treatment has come a long way since the first reported cases in the early eighties.


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Today there are a number of therapies available to people living with HIV. There are also a wide variety of resources in place to help people cope with the diagnosis.

Social worker Cynthia Teeters has extensive experience counseling a diverse population of HIV positive patients in both private and hospital settings. Below, she offers some advice to those first diagnosed with HIV.

Talking about your HIV status
When coping with any medical condition, it is important to have someone to turn to for support. HIV is no exception. Unfortunately, the stigma that is often associated with HIV may make it more difficult for you to share your diagnosis with loved ones. This is a personal decision with no right or wrong answer.. Certainly you do not need to share your private information with everyone, but it is important that you not try to go it alone. Try to find a natural balance that works for you.

Talking with loved ones about your HIV status may be stressful. People often cite fear of rejection, lack of understanding, or burdening family and friends as primary reasons not to disclose their diagnosis. If you choose to tell a trusted family member or friend, find a private time that is devoted to your discussion. Decide how much information you feel comfortable sharing regarding your illness and treatment. For instance, your loved one may have questions about the status of your treatment or how you contracted the virus. Remember, your loved one may need time to process this information. The initial talk will likely be the first of many discussions as you both begin to learn more about living with HIV. Don't forget to let your loved one know how he or she can be helpful to you (for example, by accompanying you to the doctor or by helping research support services). It is important to consider that by not sharing your status you may be depriving yourself of much needed support.

Handling partner notification
A very difficult question regarding disclosure is talking with a partner or spouse with whom you have had unprotected sexual contact. If they are advised of their possible exposure to the HIV virus, they can then be tested themselves. If they are not tested and have HIV, they may be at risk for progression of their disease to AIDS and death. Therefore, you should notify them as soon as you can. If, like some people, you feel unable to disclose your status to a sexual partner, there are some alternatives. Your doctor or, if you have one, your social worker or therapist, can help you with notification and can be present when you inform your spouse, partner, or prior sexual partners about their potential exposure to HIV. Also, in some states, there are partner notification programs that can assist you with this very important process. Partner notification programs will contact a partner to advise that they may have been exposed to the HIV virus. Your identity and your HIV status will not be shared with this individual. You may want to contact your state health department to ask if they provide assistance with partner notification.

Considering peer and/or professional support
Whether or not you choose to disclose your status to a friend or family member, you may want to consider joining a support group or talking with a counselor individually. You must decide what form of support will be most helpful. Joining a support group allows people to share information about coping with HIV in a safe environment. Most community-based AIDS service organizations run a variety of HIV-related support groups. These may include groups for women, gay men, parents, and people struggling with substance abuse. If you have a choice of groups or community organizations, you may want to shop around to find the agency that best fits your needs.

Some people may feel more comfortable addressing their concerns in a private setting. A therapist or counselor who is experienced in working with people with HIV can be instrumental in helping you sort out your feelings about your diagnosis as well as work with you during your decision about disclosure. It is important for you to find someone who is experienced and comfortable dealing with the issues facing people living with HIV. It is also important that you feel comfortable with this person so that you are able to share your true concerns and feelings. Keeping secrets from your therapist will prevent you from accomplishing much in your time together.

Support resources
If you are unfamiliar with the support services available in your area, you can contact the National AIDS hotline at 1-800-342-AIDS for local referrals and information. In addition, your local or state health department can be a valuable resource for connecting you with HIV/AIDS support services. There are also many online sites that provide peer support and information.