Mental health burden for adolescents living with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe and the world at large is real.
Mental health illness is a disorder that can cause psychological and behavioral disturbances with varying severities with symptoms that include confusion, depression, social withdrawal, extreme feelings of pleasure, anger, excitement and fear of grief amongst others.
For years Zimbabwe has been thriving on HIV prevention putting targets to end HIV/AIDS by 2023, however is initiating people living with HIV on ART enough? Adolescents living with HIV/AIDS have an increased risk of developing mental health illness compared with adolescents without the disease hence the question is how should we prevent such a narrative.
HIV programs for adolescents are mainly on access to sexual reproductive health services. As much as donor activities driven by Non – governmental organizations seek to improve access and utilization of quality integrated sexual reproductive health/ HIVGBV/ psycho- social support by adolescents can we say as a country that we are doing well in promoting mental health for these adolescents in the communities or we are just doing well on paper? Adolescents living with HIV face mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse and post traumatic disorders. Does our health system provide specialized services to help these adolescents cope? Very little is done for these adolescents as access to mental health care services in developing low-income countries such as Zimbabwe is rare.
The ministry of health provides primary counsellors in the health facilities, who are involved in providing counselling services for pre and post HIV screening and mental health services are being offered mostly through peer-to-peer support among adolescents offering psycho- social support to each other .It is a good initiative but can it really manage mental health illness among adolescents.
Our communities need trained mental health practitioners to deal with these mental health challenges which are also fair to those living in the peripheral and marginalised communities because that is where the trouble is really is. In Zimbabwe one of the startegies that are used to curb mental health issues is the use of toll free platforms of which they are not much effective for adolescents living in the rural areas where they have limited resources and never-ending erratic networks.
Several times I have heard discussions among people in the communities about how taking medications for managing HIV (ART) can cause mental illnesses to those taking the medication. Food for thought, is it the medication or its mental health illnesses caused by lack of psychological support for people living with HIV. Perhaps some of these mental health illnesses are caused by drug abuse such as the most common INTSHENGU which is taken by many young people to cope with the stresses of life among other things. It is difficult or close to impossible to find any statistics on the number of adolescent or any general people living with HIV who are suffering from mental health illnesses. It says a lot on how little importance the topic is given attention in our communities.
Alarming are issues related to stigma for mental health survivors and how they are viewed in the communities. Realistically we as communities label them as ‘insane’ people and we do not want to be associated with them. Imagine the dilemma a HIV positive adolescent face when facing such a stigma coupled with being HIV positive. Some of these adolescents tend to be rebellious against their parents with the belief that they gave them HIV and some have suicidal ideation, and rejection issues from other peers, making it hard for them to find love if they disclose their status. This becomes a breeding ground for mental health issues, which cannot go unnoticed.
As we continue with HIV prevention programs, lets bear in mind that there are adolescents who were born with HIV, who are past the prevention stage and who are drowning in mental health illnesses and have little or no where to turn to. It is imperative that issues to do with mental health are taken seriously just as much as HIV prevention is taken seriously.
Tendai Lunga is a student in training to be a counselling psychologist at Great Zimbabwe University and working as a District Coordinator under ZNNP+. She is writing in her personal capacity and can be contacted at email@example.com