A message from GMFA's Chief executive, Ian Howley | @ianhowley

It’s been quite the year, hasn’t it? I don’t think anyone could have woken up on 1 January 2020 and imagined for one second what this year had in store for us. COVID-19 has brought lockdowns, isolation, loneliness, sadness and deaths of loved ones. 

For many people within the LGBTQ+ community, memories of another pandemic came flooding back. I was lucky enough not to have lived through the HIV and AIDS epidemic. I was born in 1984 and lived in the middle of Ireland. I had no concept of HIV or AIDS. I remember when I was young watching a news programme and they were talking about AIDS. I asked my mother what it was, and her response was “It’s not something you need to worry about”. I remained blissfully unaware the impact HIV and AIDS was having on gay men in the 80s and 90s. So, I have no first-hand experience of how gay men coped through this time. I can only imagine it was beyond devastating to see those around you to get sick and die at a rate where you’re attending funerals on a weekly basis. To live in a time where you see one of your friends in a gay bar one day and the next time you see them is at their funeral. I can only imagine the impact this has had on people's mental health to have this virus hanging over you like a cloud that won’t go away. It took until the mid-90s for effective medication to come through and only from then could people expect to live a long and happy life. And as medication got better and more and more people gained access to it, HIV and AIDS became a manageable condition for our community in the UK. It’s true to say that for many living with the virus, it’s not the virus that’s the issue, it’s people’s attitude to it. HIV stigma is real, and it has consequences. 

Did you know that a lot of people who are diagnosed with HIV today will experience some sort of mental health issue because of it? Most are worried about what people will think, what their families will think. Most are worried about rejection. Worried about being alone. And it’s the worry that opens up a lot of mental health issues - thoughts of suicide creep in, with some acting on it. This is why we say HIV won’t kill you. It’s the stigma attached to it that might. But I hear you say, why is there stigma when people living with HIV that are effective medication cannot pass on the virus? I ask the same question. We don’t know why, even after hearing these facts, people will still discriminate and stigmatise. We currently live in a society where people taking PrEP are openly rejecting people living with HIV on apps. It doesn’t make sense, but this is where we are at. This is what we need to challenge. 

But there’s also a major challenge we must face this World AIDS Day. It’s mental health. If I was to ask every person reading this, “what is mental health?”, I bet nearly every answer would be different. It’s because mental health is such a vast subject that covers literally every part of your life that it means something different to everyone. Mental illness on the other hand is a bit easier to explain. Depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide are all part of mental illness. This is easier to explain, diagnose and treat. So, when we say we want to tackle poor mental health, what we all mean is we want to prevent mental illness and suicide. 

But to prevent mental illness we must tackle poor mental health. It’s one of the hardest things to do because you can’t really monitor it or see if you are having a positive effect on society. But it’s something that we must do. Because if this year has proven one thing, it’s we’re all a lockdown away from experiencing mental health and mental illness issues. 

Back in May we ran an online survey to ask LGBTQ+ people how they were coping during the first lockdown. It was taken by 2333 people and it found that 79% said their mental health had been impacted by the lockdown. The results showed huge shifts in people experiencing depression and anxiety on a daily basis, along with many feeling isolated and lonely. Those who said they have self-harmed increased slightly too. So, it’s not a lie to say that our health and wellbeing has taken a battering this year.

So back to why we need to talk about mental health this World AIDS Day. Did you know there’s more to safer sex than taking PrEP, using condoms, testing or taking your medication? How you are feeling plays a major part in your sexual health strategy. This involves looking after your mental health. If you are experiencing mental health issues and are lacking in self-esteem or self-worth, the chances are that you are going to care less about HIV and STIs. We know when people go through big life changing experiences, they tend to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs and sex. During this time, they tend not to make the best decisions when it comes to their sexual health or general health overall. This is why learning how to look after your mental health during a life changing experience can help prevent situations where you are exposed or are exposing others to HIV. This is why our message for World AIDS Day this year is not just a message about testing, or PrEP or condoms. It’s about looking after your mental health. Having good mental health is the key to living a happy and healthy life. This includes having a good sex life. 

But what can you do to improve it? Well, this is why I said it’s tricky. If you are experiencing mental illness issues, I could signpost you to services that can help. However, as it’s down to each person it’s pretty much up to you finding ways to look after your mental health. Talking helps, sharing problems, listening to others, taking time out, resting, sleeping, lower alcohol and drug use is all helpful. Personally, I try to do one thing a day that makes me laugh, whether it’s watching stupid clips on YouTube or rewatching an episode of Friends for the 10,000th time. When I feel down, I talk to my husband and if I know someone else is feeling down, I try and listen to them. 

This current lockdown comes to an end soon, but we are no closer to getting out of this pandemic. I hope and pray to Cher that this will be over soon. This pandemic may be over in a year's time but the effects it's had on our community will be with us for years to come. I hope by this time next year our World AIDS Day message will be a normal testing/PrEP/U=U campaign. But while we are still in this mess our message to you is simple. Look after your mental health. 

Also… try not to be a dick to people living with HIV. Thanks. 

Ian Howley | Ian is the Chief Executive of LGBT HERO, the parent organisation of GMFA.

You and follow Ian on Twitter: @ianhowley

Links and support:

>> Talking about mental health

>> What is anxiety?

>> What is depression?

>> 5 Ways to improve your mental health

>> MindOut, the LGBTQ+ mental health charity operates online chat support service every day. You can find more details here.

>> LGBT Helpline Scotland 0300 123 2523 operates on Tuesday and Wednesday between 12 - 9pm. You can also email them on [email protected]

>> THT Direct, which focuses on sexual health and helping those living with HIV, is on 0808 802 1221 and open from 10am to 8pm

>> Mermaids Helpline for transgender young people is on 0344 334 0550, Monday - Friday, 9am - 9pm.

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