You deserve love and support on the journey.
Thanks to incredible advances in medicine, getting a positive HIV diagnosis isn’t the death sentence it used to be. Still, decades of global panic and widespread misinformation has caused lingering stigma and fear about HIV. As a result, it can be challenging and emotional to consider telling your friends and family that you have HIV. That said, experts say the struggle will be worth it.
The Benefits of Telling Friends and Family About Your HIV Diagnosis
It goes without saying that anyone you’re intimate with should know about your HIV positive status. Ideally, you should share this information long before any sexual activity. This way, you can have the discussion with a clear mind and allow them to make decisions that are best for their health. Not only will this help keep them protected, but it may also strengthen your relationship.
Another benefit of telling friends and family about your HIV diagnosis is for support. This diagnosis may come with a lot of emotions, including fear, shame, or hopelessness. Their support can help you come to terms with the diagnosis and navigate your “new normal.”
Plus, your loved ones may be able to help you disclose your HIV status with others. This may help take some of the burden off you alone. For example, if you worry your dad may be difficult to talk to, you can tell your sibling first, and together you can have the conversation with your dad. This may make it less intimidating for you. However, it may also help the person you’re concerned about (like your dad) feel more comfortable in the discussion when they witness someone else (your sibling) easily supporting you.
It’s also important that others know about your HIV status in the case of an emergency. That way, your loved ones can help inform the medical staff about your HIV status to protect you all from further transmission.
And When You Shouldn’t
It may be difficult to tell some family and friends due to inaccurate or discriminatory beliefs about HIV. The last thing you want to do with an HIV positive status is to put yourself into more physical, mental, or emotional harm’s way.
If you fear an angry or even violent reaction from friends and family, it may not be necessary for this person to know. Consider the outcome you’d like to have from this conversation, and know it will be beyond your control once you share the information. If you have reason to believe the person is incapable of coming through for you, you can leave them off your list.
What to Expect When You’re Explaining
For the best conversation, you should prepare for the possibilities. Anticipate what your loved ones might say, ask, or do, and plan for how to respond. You’ll likely encounter:
- Strong reactions: Fear of the unknown is powerful, and they are catching up to what you already know. Don’t get discouraged if someone responds negatively at first: Some people just need time to process.
- Invasive questions: Be straightforward, direct, and prepared with answers to questions they may have. This can help ease the tension and nerves and quell any concerns straight away. Tell them after you’ve seen a doctor so you can describe your proactive treatment plan and optimistic prognosis.
- Panicked misconceptions: Those who are less informed about the condition could respond in hurtful ways. Calmly educate them about the parameters of transmission (and that touching, hugging, and kissing are not within them). Be clear about your privacy wishes, if you want them not to disclose this information.
- Concern for your wellbeing: Don’t be afraid to show your feelings, and offer ideas for ways you’d like to be supported. Remind them that you are taking the necessary treatment and though it will be lifelong, you can also expect to have a long, happy life.
Still nervous or don’t know how to start the conversation? Consider talking to a doctor or mental health professional first, who can give you tailored advice about how to embark on these conversations, or even be there to help you.
Stella A. Safo, MD, is an HIV primary care physician and assistant professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.