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Deciding whether to tell people that you have HIV

Because of stigma, many people with HIV think quite carefully about whether to tell people that they have HIV or not. One way that some people avoid experiences of stigma and discrimination is by not telling others that they have HIV.

In a great many situations, HIV simply isn’t relevant and is unlikely to come up in conversation. Many people with HIV decide that the majority of people they come into contact with have no need to know about their health status.

On the other hand, disclosing their HIV status may be the single most powerful thing that a person with HIV can do to fight stigma.

Deciding who to talk to about HIV is a very personal decision, and what is right for one person won’t necessarily be right for another person.

“Unless people know somebody who’s got it, who’s close to them, they won’t change.”

There can sometimes be advantages to telling people you trust or people who will be able to help in some way. If they understand what you are going through, they may be able to give you the love and support you need. Sharing a confidence can sometimes make a relationship stronger and you won’t have the effort of hiding your HIV status.

“I’ve been very careful as to who I tell. I don’t think I have been discriminated against or stigmatised in any way, but I think that’s because of who I’ve chosen to tell.”

Sometimes people who are told respond in an unkind or hurtful way. But this probably happens less often than many people think. Most people with HIV find that most of the people they tell react well.

Telling people that you have HIV is more likely to be a positive experience if you are careful about who you tell and how you tell them. Here are five questions to ask yourself each time you think about telling someone that you have HIV.

“The person I would never, ever tell in my life is my mum. You know back home, they are highly ignorant of HIV. They don’t even believe that there is a way you can manage your life and live longer. Once they hear that someone is HIV positive, the thing that comes into their head is death. I wouldn’t want her to know about it - she might die thinking about it.”

Why do you want to tell them?

It’s easier to be sure that telling someone is a good idea if you have a clear idea about what telling them could achieve – what benefits are you hoping for? You might think that if they knew, they could give you some help or support. Think about whether these expectations are realistic.

There may be some people you are very close to who you feel ‘should’ know. But think through the following questions, and check that it still seems a good idea.

How will they react?

Try thinking about how this person will feel on hearing the news. Imagine the best way they could react – and the worst.

You might find yourself needing to reassure someone who is upset. You could be asked how you got HIV, and the news could tap into someone’s prejudices about sexuality, morality or illness. You might find it helpful to have factual leaflets about how HIV is – and is not – transmitted at hand to provide reassurance.

Or you may want to tell this person because you are confident that they will be calm, supportive and trustworthy.

What are your options if they react badly?

In some situations, while it would be very disappointing if a person reacted badly, it wouldn’t have serious consequences. For example, you might want to stop seeing the person, but this may be okay if there are other people you can turn to.

But in other cases, you might be considering telling someone that you are financially or emotionally dependent on, or who is important to you in some other way. The consequences of the person reacting badly would be more serious.

For example, if you are thinking about telling someone you live with, what would your options be if they reacted badly and you couldn’t go on living with them?

Can they keep it to themselves?

When you tell people, it may be worth telling them clearly who they can and cannot talk to about your HIV status.

Is this a trustworthy person who understands the importance of confidentiality? Although you can ask someone not to tell others, once you’ve told them, you won’t have much control over what they do with the information.

People you are close to might find the news worrying or upsetting. They may want to get support for themselves. But if they’re not meant to talk about it with anyone at all, this will be hard for them.

How will you tell them?

You might want to think about how you’ll bring the subject up, as well as the best moment to do so. Choose a time and a place where you’ll be as comfortable as possible.

“I find it easier to disclose because half the time I forget who I have told and I don’t want to have these two lives,  you know,  where I have these people who do know and those who don’t know. And if people choose to fall away, they fall way and if people choose to stay that’s when you can see who your true friends are and who your true family are.”

HIV, stigma and discrimination

Published February 2012

Last reviewed February 2012

Next review December 2015

Contact NAM to find out more about the scientific research and information used to produce this booklet.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.