Among the questions on Illinois HIV Care Connect's HIV and Mental Health Quiz is 'people living with HIV and a mental health condition have a more difficult time achieving viral suppression: True or False?"
According to Illinois Health Association Assistant Director for Programs and Compliance Jeffery M. Erdman, his colleague/HIV Project Manager Michael Maginn and Illinois HIV Care Connect Communications Manager Ray Valek, knowing the correct answer to that question is essential for those living with and at risk from HIV/AIDS.
That is why at the beginning of this year, Illinois HIV Care Connect announced the launch of a "new, educational website content designed to reinforce the importance of good mental health among people living with HIV."
The idea for the campaign was seeded in the Illinois Department of Public Health's Quality Improvement Committee, which had been looking at a number of different initiatives to improve the quality of care for clients across the state living with HIV.
The results thus far have illustrated the need.
Valek noted that, in order to garner a baseline idea of people's understanding of HIV and mental health, the quiz was administered Nov. 1-Dec. 15, 2015, without any educational content available to read. Starting on Dec. 16, the content was included.
The viral suppression question showed a 22-percent improvement in correct answers once the educational information became available. Another question showed a 17-percent increase in correct responses.
"We know that, just in general, one in five Americans [is] affected with a mental-health condition to start with and that can be exacerbated when an individual has HIV," Erdman told Windy City Times. "The medications one is taking for HIV can sometimes lead to issues with mental health but there are also the challenges of being HIV positive."
Erdman added that some of those challenges include a combination of stress factors such as societal discrimination, stress when disclosing an HIV condition, insurance problems and the day-to-day ability to live well.
"We also know from looking at data from the Illinois Department of Public Heath that about 40 percent of the clients who are case managed and are HIV positive have a history of mental health," he said. "For those clients who are not virally suppressednot controlling their HIV well, that number is almost 50 percent."
Thus the principal message of the program is that if a person has HIV, it is vital for them to tend to their mental health.
"For example, make it a part of your regular discussions with your health care provider," Valek urged. "If you notice any symptoms of mental health conditions you should seek treatment."
Another problem is society's prevalent attitude of burying its head in the sand concerning mental health in general, according to Erdman.
"We don't talk about these issues in society," Erdmann said. "There's a lot of ignorance around them. So a lot of people really do not understand what good mental health is and what it means to have a mental health condition and they are not aware of how to take care of themselves. That's one of the reasons why we are doing this campaignto make more people aware of the importance of good mental health."
Among the list of important factors the campaign asks participants to consider is working with HIV doctors and infectious disease specialists who understand the interactions between HIV and mental health medications.
"We wanted to explore potential barriers to seeking diagnosis or treatment for mental health," Maginn said. "There was a relatively high percentage of respondents who still think that their health insurance may not cover mental health conditions. There is still a feeling among the HIV community that mental health conditions may not be covered or people can get their insurance taken away from them."
Under the Affordable Care Act, such prohibitions no longer exist.
"You can talk to your doctor about it, you can seek treatment for it and you will feel better," Maginn added.
The campaign is also targeted at case managers.
"They will become more aware of the importance of mental health," Erdmann said. "They're going to be working with mental health providers in their communities. All these services are free under the Ryan White program."
For more information and to take the quiz, visit: hivcareconnect.com/hiv-and-mental-health.