A study has found that one third of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with HIV show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Researchers from the NHS Foundation Trust in London surveyed 100 gay and bisexual men who had been diagnosed with HIV. The study results were published in the latest edition of the journal AIDS Patient Care and STDs

They found that 33 per cent of the men met the criteria for having PTSD, which is a psychological disorder that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events.

Symptoms can include flashbacks, guilt, depression, addiction and physical complaints such as headaches.

The researchers were surprised to find that beginning antiretroviral therapy was marginally the strongest trigger for PTSD developing and theorised that this may be because the men feared how a medication regime could affect their lives.

They concluded: “Such appraisals could include catastrophic expectations about the limitations a medication regime may impose on social or occupational functioning thus leading to traumatic fear, or the perceived failure of alternative medicines and lifestyle remedies leading to traumatic helplessness.”

Other triggers were feeling physically ill as a result of infection or experiencing the death of a loved one from HIV.

Significantly, the actual diagnosis of HIV was described by 55 per cent of men as traumatic but this was not in itself a trigger for PTSD.

Matthew Hodson, head of programmes at GMFA, the gay men’s health charity, said the study was a “sharp reminder of the huge emotional stress that HIV infection can cause”.

He said: “If you become infected, you will probably have to take medication every day for the rest of your life to keep your immune system functioning. In addition to anxieties over treatment failure, or fear of how it will affect their social and work lives, people with HIV have to deal with stigmatisation. There is the constant knowledge that there will always be the possibility of them infecting partners. If they discuss their status with partners, they face rejection. If they don’t discuss their status, they are vilified.

“Amongst my own friends, I see how devastating it can be to be diagnosed positive, and how starting medication in itself is often traumatic. We need to get to a point where, as gay men, we are supportive of each other and where we can openly discuss HIV status and safer sex.”