More than 1 million people in the United States have HIV. So you might know someone who is living with this virus.
Since the most common ways to get the virus are through unprotected sex or drug use, teens who have HIV may feel embarrassed and want to keep the issue very private. People also can be born with the virus or get infected through a blood transfusion in another country.
However a person gets it, some people with HIV might feel alone, isolated, and frightened at times. More than anything, they need good friends like you to lean on and trust.
First, Learn the Facts
If you just found out a friend has HIV, you'll want to know what it is and what it isn't. HIV is surrounded by a lot of rumors and misinformation.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus affects a key part of the body's immune system that fights infectious diseases. That's why people with HIV can get serious infections — their immune systems lose the power to fight off disease.
Some people with HIV might have what doctors call a "low viral load," which means that they are staying healthy. This is why about 1 in 5 people living with HIV don't know they have it.
A big concern for most people is that HIV can develop into a disease called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome — better known as AIDS. But not everyone with HIV will develop AIDS. As scientists develop better medicines, more and more people with HIV live healthy, long lives.
Hundreds of teens in the United States become infected with HIV every year through unprotected sex or needle sharing. A much smaller number of teens with HIV were born to mothers who were infected. Thanks to new treatments for pregnant women, very few babies are born with HIV in the United States these days. It's also extremely rare for someone in the United States to get HIV through a blood transfusion because of all the testing that's done on blood donations.
Today, there is hope that people living with HIV may never even become sick, thanks to new medications and medical tests. However, there is still no cure for the virus — just like there's no cure for viruses like colds and the flu. People living with the virus have to be extra careful not to take risks (like having unprotected sex) that could expose others to HIV.
That brings us to the next important thing to know: You can't get HIV from the kind of casual contact you'd have with a friend, like sharing a glass, kissing on the cheek, hugging, or shaking hands.
If a friend tells you he or she has HIV, it's a sign of trust. It's important to reassure your friend that you will not break that trust by telling others. Having a medical condition like HIV is personal, private health information.
Don't be afraid to ask your friend questions. Your interest and support can help your friend feel less self-conscious or less embarrassed. If your friend doesn't feel like talking, don't push it. Do some online research — but be sure to pick reputable sites, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the AIDS.gov site.
In some cases, you may believe that a friend or a friend's family member has HIV even though you haven't been told that. If that's the case, wait until your friend feels ready to talk — don't ask. Instead, take opportunities to speak in a positive, supportive way about people in the media or movies living with HIV so your friend knows you won't judge him or her.
Helping Your Friend Manage Stress
People with HIV can date, have sex, get married and have families. Having HIV doesn't mean your friend will be sick or disabled by the virus. But, unfortunately, there's still a lot of false information out there about HIV. It's understandable if your friend feels self-conscious and doesn't want other friends or classmates to find out.
If your friend doesn't want other people to know, your support and caring will be more important than ever. Stress can affect the immune system and lead to stress-related problems such as anxiety and depression, so your friend may really benefit from having someone to confide in and talk to.
Don't be afraid to ask how your friend is feeling or talk about what it's like to live with HIV when you're alone together, especially if your friend wants to talk about it. Pretending there are no problems doesn't make things better, and avoiding the topic may lead your friend to think you're ashamed too. It might help to ask, "Do you feel like talking about it?" Don't focus too much on your friend's health, though — when people feel good, they might not want to be reminded about health issues.
It's natural for teens living with HIV (and the people who care about them) to feel sadness, anger, and a range of other emotions. If things seem to be too much for your friend to handle, a therapist, counselor, or other mental health professional may be able to help. Support groups and ministries can also be great support resources.
Finding the right support can help protect teens living with HIV from getting stressed out, becoming depressed, worrying, or using drugs or alcohol to feel better.
It can be hard to bring up the subject of therapy or counseling. You could try saying, "I've noticed you seem really sad [or angry, or whatever emotion you've noticed] recently and I'm worried about you. I know you have a lot to deal with. Have you thought about talking to a counselor? Who do you trust to talk to about this?"
If you've ever had counseling, you can mention how much it helped you. By opening up with your own personal information, it can help your friend feel less intimidated by the idea of getting support. It's most helpful if you can be specific by providing a name and number of a counselor or group. Or, suggest your friend ask a doctor or nurse practitioner. Follow up to see if your friend needs help getting to an appointment.
A local health clinic or hospital can give you information about counseling services or support groups for people living with HIV/AIDS. Just be careful not to reveal the name of the person you are getting the information for, especially when you ask friends or family members for recommendations.
Stand Up for Your Friend
If classmates or other people know your friend has HIV, they may be wary and might not want to participate in activities together. Your friend may even get teased or bullied — which is one reason why people living with HIV often don't want to tell others.
Your first instinct may be to defend your friend. The best way to do it is not to get mad or hostile toward bullies, no matter how mean they may seem. Understand (and reassure your friend) that these people are probably just ignorant about HIV. They may even believe some of the myths and lies about the virus. Try to educate them. You can set a strong example with your own small actions, such eating lunch with your friend every day or partnering with him or her in PE or science.
If things get mean, don't hesitate to involve a teacher or other adult who knows about your friend's health condition. (If you can't find someone who knows, you can still report the bullying but can't say anything about your friend having HIV.)
State and federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act protect the rights of people living with HIV — including the right to participate in school activities and sports. Your friend will have to take precautions to avoid infection and may have to limit some activities depending on how he or she is feeling, but there is no reason to miss out on the fun.
Keep it real, but keep it positive. It can help to talk about the future and to make plans in a realistic, compassionate way. Don't shrug off your friend's fears or concerns about things like medication, nutrition, sex, marriage, illness, or even death. Instead, try to offer realistic, specific examples of famous people who are living with HIV. (No examples come to mind? Search online for celebrities living with HIV, such as Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis.)
If your friend is forgetful, ask if you can help by giving reminders about medications and appointments. Sometimes the best thing to do might be the simplest — perhaps your friend just wants to catch a movie and forget about it all for a while.
Offer specific, practical support. "If there's anything I can do…" is a nice thing to say. But the more specific the offer is, the better. Bring homework to your friend if he or she has to miss school for a medical appointment. If illness keeps your friend home, consider setting up a special page on a social network site so he or she can stay in touch with classmates. Visit your friend and bring joke books, Mad Libs (remember those?), comedy DVDs, weird little toys — anything you think your friend would like.
Take Care of Yourself
To care for your friend, you need to take care of yourself too. It can be hard having a friend who has to deal with a chronic illness. You might feel afraid when your friend is sick, for example, or stressed out if you spend a lot of time standing up for your friend.
You might even struggle with the temptation to pull back from your friendship from time to time so you can avoid the uncomfortable feelings you have. But your friend needs to know if you need space or if you're not feeling well and don’t want to pass along any germs.
So what should you do?
First, don't try to brush off your emotions — especially difficult ones. Try to think a bit about what you're feeling. You'll likely feel sadness, and maybe fear, confusion, or anger. You might not even know what you're feeling. Or you may not connect difficult emotions with what your friend is going through.
Of course, you don't want to burden your friend with your feelings. But you need support, too. Try to find someone you can turn to, like a parent or school counselor. If your friend has siblings, spend time with them. They probably feel a lot of the same things and you can help each other through. Once you have a way of dealing with your own feelings, it will be easier not to let them get in the way of being a good friend.
The two most important things you can do for your friend are to be there for support in whatever way feels natural and to keep your friend's HIV diagnosis private. Just being there to hang out or eat lunch together can help keep things in perspective for everyone.
Life is for living. If friends know that you care about them for them — for the creative, smart, funny people they are — that can be the best thing you can do for a person living with any type of medical condition.