Stigma, Resilience and Quality of Life
What is HIV stigma?
Since the earliest days of the epidemic people living with HIV and AIDS have spoken about being blamed, feared and judged or treated as though they were dangerous, immoral or helpless. Over time we have come to understand this social treatment as HIV stigma. Though HIV stigma has changed and evolved, it has long been associated with other forms of oppression such as homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism and poverty.
HIV stigma still exists and it affects people living with HIV in many ways.
We can all hold stigmatising beliefs or attitudes, even people living with HIV. Sometimes this is called self-stigma or internalised stigma. Stigma can be enacted as discrimination or poor treatment at an inter-personal level. It can also become embedded in culture, social norms and practices, or even in structures and systems like the law, media or health services. People living with HIV can also learn to fear and expect stigma which can prevent us from seeking help and support. The fear of stigma can have a negative impact on our social and emotional wellbeing without even being enacted as discrimination.
Stigma and quality of life
In recent years, the concept of quality of life has helped us to understand issues like HIV stigma and the wellbeing of people living with HIV. Quality of life is about how a person sees their overall position in life in relation to their own standards, goals, expectations and concerns.
Quality of life is not just the result of individual behaviour or psychological resilience to something like an HIV diagnosis. Community, care, support and service environments are all important parts of quality of life. Stigma is felt and experienced by people living with HIV in all of these areas.
Resisting HIV stigma and improving quality of life
Peers can help fight stigma and build resilience to its impact on our quality of life.
No one else can understand the experience of HIV stigma quite like another person living with HIV. Research shows that peer support works on personal, relational and social levels to resist the impact that stigma has on psychological, social, functional and health-related aspects of quality of life for people living with HIV. Our voices are vital in social campaigns which seek to build empathy and understanding among the community, as well as systems advocacy to address structural discrimination.
If you are struggling with HIV stigma or feeling isolated, you can access one-on-one support or join one of our social activities or workshops. Our resources on sharing your HIV status may help to keep you safe in relationships and when you access other services and forms of support. If you have experienced discrimination in healthcare or another service, you can also contact Living Positive Victoria for personal advocacy.
Other ways to build resilience to the impact of HIV stigma on your wellbeing are much like the ways anyone else would take care of their mental health. Make sure you get enough rest, exercise, and nourishment, and focus on gaining fulfillment from relationships, work, pleasure, recreation and other life goals. If you have persistent mental health concerns talk to your GP or another healthcare provider about effective treatments such as counselling, therapy or medication.