The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

UTRGV School of Medicine

“It’s about empowering the individual.”

– Hydeia Broadbent

HIV/AIDS activist, diagnosed with HIV when she was 3 years old

It was a wonderful experience to be able to listen recently to Hydeia’s wise words and compelling story during her visit to UTRGV’s two-day conference, “Healthy Communities: Mental Health, Substance Abuse and HIV Prevention.”

Hydeia is 31 years old now, and has been living with HIV/AIDS since early childhood. When she was just 6, she started advocating for people – like herself – diagnosed with HIV, and she brought the weight of her experience, of her positivism and hope, to the Edinburg Campus.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Dr. Eugenia Curet, our assistant dean for Student Support and Counseling Wellness and one of the conference organizers, was a genius to invite Hydeia to address the health professionals, community activists and service providers from the Valley and beyond.

Hydeia had simple but critical tips for them: Make sure your patients have a solid support system. Get them help for managing the stress of their illness. And make sure they take their medications.

Most importantly, she encouraged everyone to talk to the young people in their lives about HIV and AIDS.

“If I didn’t have the support of my family, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through middle school and high school,” she told us.

It sounds so simple. But how do you just talk to your children – your little ones and teenagers alike – about sex, about disease, about death?

Maybe a good place to start is to talk about making good choices. Maybe “it’s about empowering the individual,” no matter how young.

This conference brought together doctors and nurses and a range of healthcare providers, indigenous healers, community health workers and residents, all talking about how to prevent and treat mental illnesses through collaboration. That means talking with each other. Communicating.

Hydeia also talked about stigma and discrimination among the primary barriers to achieving access to good care and prevention. People living with HIV face discrimination from family, friends, health providers, employers, and just about everyone except others with HIV/AIDS. Misinformation. Ignorance. Superstition. Fear. Lack of empathy. All of this can crush one’s spirit, leading to despondency, disillusionment, demoralization and despair.

While Hydeia reminded us that there is still much to be done, working in HIV/AIDS Psychiatry has taught me that we do not do an equivalently good job in mental health. Stigma begins and ends with each one of us, and it is up to us to end it … now.

As with HIV/AIDS care, we have to begin by removing all barriers to care. Open, accessible and affordable mental healthcare, just like HIV/AIDS care, has to be a priority. Whether it is with the chronically mentally ill, our veterans, our children, injecting drug users, or our homeless – everyone should have access to care and everyone should have a voice in their care.

But is more than just access and a voice. It is access to jobs, housing and nutrition, as well as dignity and respect. It is a voice in opposition to the judgments, prejudice and violence against them.

Having worked in HIV/AIDS, I recognize that we have made great progress in both care and reducing stigma. However, in mental health, we are in the nascent stage of the work ahead. We all have a role to play in preventing and treating disease and mental illness. We all need to take an even greater role in reducing stigma in mental health. So please … Talk. Consult. Collaborate. And most important, Communicate.

To better achieve our objective, take a look at the Meadows Foundation program, “Okay to Say”:

Let’s use this forum, our recent conference, this newsletter and our collective experiences to serve as an impetus to Talk. Consult. Collaborate. Communicate … to tackle and end the persistent problem associated with mental health stigma.

Click for more on UTRGV’s Mental Health Awareness Conference.