The support lifeline for people living with HIV

The theme of this year’s World Health Day is depression. Jerson See found out his HIV-positive status when he was only 18. The news shattered his life. After a difficult few years, the 28-year old from Cebu in the Philippines is the Executive Director of  Cebu Plus, a dynamic non-profit health organization for people living with HIV. He tells UNAIDS about his struggle with depression in the early days of his diagnosis.

 (The views and opinions expressed in interviews or commentaries are those of the interviewees and contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS)

UNAIDS: Can you tell us what how you found out about your status?

Jerson: I was engaged in sexual activity at a young age and by the time I was 18 I was hospitalized almost every month. When my doctor asked me to take an HIV test, I was very confident, that I would never have HIV because I thought HIV is not here in Cebu. I thought HIV positive people are dying and very sickly. I thought I never had sex with those kinds of people,

But when my doctor handed over the result it turned out to be positive. I didn’t know what I was going to say. I thought I’m going to die in five years, I thought that my future is gone.

UNAIDS: After you found out your results did you receive any counselling?

Jerson: Basically, before I got myself tested I went to the pre-test counselling. Then after that I went to the post-test counselling.

During that time, it helped because my doctor at the time provided the pre-and post-test counselling. If I did not go through that process, maybe things would be different for me now. I was just very lucky that the doctor was very helpful.

I was a student back then. I had a lot of plans. I had a lot of misconceptions regarding HIV. I thought I would die within five years. Life had no meaning anymore.

I had plans to finish studies and go abroad to work as a nurse, but after I found out about my status, I stopped studying. I just opted to work at a call centre because I thought that was it.

UNAIDS: Did you feel emotionally drained?

Jerson: Even though my doctor was very helpful, I was still very young and I still couldn’t fully accept my status. And so I attempted to commit suicide.

I started slashing my wrists. I still have the scars on my left arm. I did it because I thought I was going to die in five years.

There was also one instance when I really felt especially depressed. It was a year or maybe six months after I found out my status. I drank the entire bottle of my anti-retroviral drugs. I thought by taking that one bottle, I was going to die.  I even texted my doctor asking what was going to happen to me. It was funny because my doctor responded that even though I did that, I was not going to die, but if I went to the hospital, it would not be covered by my insurance and I had to pay my insurance and I would have to pay the hospital. I thought that I would not even die, and I would have to spend more money. That was a learning point for me.

It was emotionally draining as well because both my mother and father came from prominent families in Cebu, and I felt like I was an outcast.

Then I chatted with a couple, who was HIV positive – Ate Rina and Kuya Gabby.  I saw that Kuya Gabby had been living with HIV for about 20 years and Ate Rina had been living with HIV for approximately 16 years. They really changed my life.  They made me see that having a positive result is not the end of the world. I saw that they did it, so I thought I could do it too.

During that time, there was a support group in Cebu, and it also really helped me address the psycho-social needs that I was experiencing.

UNAIDS: Do you think there are specific issues which prevent people living from HIV from seeking treatment for depression?

 Jerson: There are a lot of reasons, but predominantly, it’s because of the stigma associated with HIV. It’s still evident in Cebu.

Pre-and post-test counselling is very important in helping the client accept the result. What we see here in Cebu is people who did not undergo counselling usually do not go back to the clinic for one or two years until after they have opportunistic infections. For people who get HIV counselling, there are more chances of letting them accept the result and even linking them to a treatment support programme.

Some people can get support from their family, some get support from their partners. It is a case by case basis. The important thing though is there should be support for people living with HIV.

UNAIDS: Any words of advice to those who just recently found out about their status, and may be feeling low?

Jerson: Having a positive result does not mean it’s the end of the world. I’ve been living with HIV for ten years but l live a normal and productive life. HIV is just a virus but it shouldn’t stop you from living your life. It’s normal to experience depression, but seek medical advice, talk to a support group and talk to other people living with HIV. At the end of the day, having a positive result does not mean it’s the end of the world.

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