24 August 2015

HIV diagnosis still prompts thoughts of suicide

Despite the fact that HIV is no longer a killer, the stigma associated with the virus remains high. About one in 10 people living with HIV reports feeling suicidal.


With free treatment widely available, HIV is no longer a death sentence, but for many people newly diagnosed with the virus thoughts of death are still not far off.

Suicide crossed his mind

For Thabiso Moloi* from Qwaqwa in the Free State, being diagnosed with HIV was a “terrifying” time during which he considered suicide.

He found out in June that he was HIV positive after he and friends had decided to go together for HIV counselling and testing.  

“We got there and we decided that we will go in individually,” he remembered. “My name was called and I went inside and the nurse explained to me the procedure.”

Read: Testing for HIV

Just minutes later, Moloi said life changed.

“After (a) few minutes my results were ready and she told me that I was HIV positive,” he says. “I couldn't believe it. I didn’t wait to hear more, I just left the clinic.”

Arriving home, Moloi locked himself in his room. He admits suicide crossed his mind, but luckily he decided to speak to his mother instead.

“She told me how much she loved me and that it’s all going to be all right,” he added.

About one in 10 has considered suicide

A 2013 University of Cape Town analysis of data from almost 40,000 South African antiretroviral patients found that people living with HIV had near normal life expectancies.

Despite the fact that HIV is no longer a killer, the stigma associated with the virus remains high. About one in 10 people living with HIV reports feeling suicidal in the last year, according South Africa’s first HIV stigma index released by the South African National AIDS Council at the country’s June SA AIDS conference.

Conducted among more than 10,000 people living with HIV, the survey looked to gauge HIV-related stigma and discrimination in the country – including self, or “internalised” stigma among those living with the virus.

About 30 percent of those surveyed also expessed feeling ashamed or guilty and blaming themselves for their diagnosis in the year prior to be interviewed.  

Read: Suicide intervention 'tool' for HIV patients

Nurse Khali Motsoeneng used to work at Bethlehem’s Dihlabeng Hospital. According to Motsoeneng, patients often reported not only feelings of suicide and shame following a diagnosis but also anxiety and fear.

“Suicide is often the first thing that comes to people mind when we tell people about their status,” said Motsoeneng, who added that these feelings make pre and post- test counseling after HIV testing very important. 

'I love  my son so much'

“We sit down and counsel them and we make sure they understand everything as well as the process to follow,” she added. “In the end, they do understand that we are here to help them, and that being HIV positive is not a death sentence. “

“With proper treatment and adherence to treatment they can live a good long life,” she added.

After her son’s disclosure, Moloi’s mother returned with him to the clinic so that the pair could check his CD4 count. A CD4 count is a measure of the immune system’s strength that is used to guage whether patients need to begin taking  antiretrovirals (ARVs). Moloi was started on ARVs and his mother helps him remember to take his treatment daily.

Read: ARVs: the truth

“I love my son so much, he is my only child and I will stand by him and make sure that he lives a healthy life,” said Moloi’s mother. “I even go with him to the clinic to collect his medication and will continue to support him through all this.”

Motsoeneng said support makes a big difference in patients accepting and having a positive outlook when they get an HIV diagnosis.

For Moloi, his mother’s support made all the difference.

“I don’t think I would’ve made it without my mom being here for me,” he said.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) operates a specialised hotline for people thinking of suicide on 0800 567 567. People can also phone their 24-hour help line on 0800 12 13 14 or SMS 31393 to have a SADAG operator call you back. – Health-e News.

*Name changed upon request

Read more:

Youth suicide on the increase

Routine HIV testing works

SANAC wants three million on ARV’s by 2015

Image: Shutterstock


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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