Treatments for mental health issues

A good place to start if you want to talk to someone about your psychological and emotional wellbeing is your GP. (GP is short for general practitioner, sometimes also called a family doctor, or primary care doctor.)

Your GP should have good knowledge of available services near where you live. There may be people in the practice who specialise in psychological wellbeing and mental health problems, or they may refer you to a local counsellor, therapist or mental health team.

You can find out more about the different job titles and types of treatment in our booklet HIV, mental health & emotional wellbeing.

Talking therapies

Talking therapies are designed to help people understand and control their feelings. Common examples include counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but there are also other types. Some are more suited to certain conditions or situations than others. Your GP or HIV healthcare team will be able to advise you on whether one type of therapy is more suitable for you in your current situation.

Counselling usually involves sessions of around an hour long, talking to a counsellor one to one. If you access counselling through the NHS you will usually be offered 6 to 12 sessions free of charge. You should be able to talk about yourself, your situation and your feelings. Sometimes, it is also useful for couples or families to attend counselling sessions together. 

CBT may be offered by your GP if you have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or certain other psychological issues or mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder or phobias. It aims to help you feel more able to cope, by helping you think less negatively. Your therapist will work with you to set goals for yourself, with tasks to complete before your next session.

Talking therapies are available privately and through the NHS. They may be recommended on their own, or in combination with medication or self-help programmes. 

In some areas there is high demand for these services and there may be a long waiting list if you want to access them through the NHS. If you are in a position to contribute to the cost of counselling sessions, you may be able to pay for them privately.

If you have recently been diagnosed with HIV, you may be able to access counselling through your HIV clinic or an HIV support organisation, or be able to attend a ‘newly diagnosed’ course. 

Some charities offer counselling free of charge, or at a reduced cost. Some private therapists offer reduced rates for people with a low income. Your GP or HIV healthcare team may know of local organisations, or you could search our online e-atlas for HIV organisations that may offer counselling.

There’s more information on finding a counsellor or therapist in our booklet HIV, mental health & emotional wellbeing.

Antidepressants

If you are diagnosed with depression, your GP may recommend that you take antidepressant drugs, which relieve the symptoms of depression by altering chemicals in the brain that influence mood and behaviour. They can take several weeks to work and may have side-effects.

Although there are three classes of antidepressant drugs used (tricyclics, MAOIs and SSRIs), it is most likely that you will be offered a drug from the SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) class, which includes drugs like fluoxetine (Prozac) and citalopram (Cipramil), as these have fewest side-effects and interactions with other drugs.

The amount of time you stay on antidepressants will depend on your individual circumstances, and although you may start to feel better soon after starting to take them, it is recommended that you remain on them for at least three months if it is your first depressive illness.

Antidepressants don’t cure depression, but they can help by reducing the symptoms you have. This can mean that you feel more able to take steps to deal with the depression in other ways. 

It’s a good idea to tell your HIV doctor if you have been prescribed antidepressant drugs, as it may affect your choice of HIV treatment. It’s also important to note that the herbal antidepressant St John's wort affects several anti-HIV drugs. Tell your HIV doctor, or another member of your healthcare team, about any other treatments you are taking, even if they were not prescribed by a doctor.

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

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.