SAMHSA Commemorates the 40th Anniversary of the AIDS Epidemic

By Kristin Roha, MS, MPH, SAMHSA Public Health Advisor for HIV

June 5th marks 40 years since the first five cases of what later became known as AIDS were officially reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). June 5th also is observed as HIV Long-Term Survivor’s Day. On this 40th anniversary, SAMHSA commemorates the more than 32 million people, including 700,000 in the United States, who have died from AIDS-related illness globally since the start of the epidemic, and honors the resilience of long-term HIV survivors and the vital role they play within our communities.

SAMHSA’s mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. People with substance use disorder and/or mental illness are at increased risk of getting HIV, and of passing the virus on to others. People with HIV, mental illness, and/or substance use disorder also face increased behavioral health challenges as each comorbidity acts as a potential obstacle in treatment of the other two. They also face a complex healthcare system that can be difficult to navigate. We know from SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) that the prevalence of substance use is higher among people living with HIV than among the general population, and that substance use disorder can increase the risk of getting HIV and negatively impact HIV care, treatment, and related health outcomes. We also know that the prevalence of mental illness is higher among people living with HIV than among the general population; mental illness can interfere with HIV prevention and adherence to treatment and is linked to behaviors that increase the likelihood of getting HIV. Mental health and substance use disorder healthcare practitioners like SAMHSA’s grant recipients and partner organizations serve on the front lines of the HIV epidemic and can play a vital role in linking individuals to HIV testing, counseling, treatment, and prevention. For this reason, SAMHSA is a proud partner in the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. initiative.

SAMHSA’s HIV funding targets people who have mental illness, substance use, and HIV. SAMHSA has pushed for universal HIV testing upon admission to substance use disorder treatment, and it is a requirement for some of our grants. SAMHSA also has funded grants that provide individuals with HIV peer support and navigation services through a complex healthcare system; provide one-stop-shop healthcare models that promote full integration and collaboration in clinical practice between primary and behavioral health care; and fund increased engagement in care for racial and ethnic minorities with substance use disorder and/or co-occurring mental disorders who are at risk for HIV or are HIV positive.

June 5th also is observed as HIV Long-Term Survivors Day. SAMHSA honors long-term survivors of the HIV epidemic and recognizes the needs, issues, and journeys of Americans who are long-term survivors in our families, neighborhoods, communities, and healthcare systems. We recognize the need to continue addressing both the physical and mental challenges to their well-being due to decades of successful disease management. More than ever long-term survivors need our support to manage both the physical impact of decades of HIV disease management, and feelings of social isolation, loneliness, and depression, with which many of them struggle. With many current HIV efforts focused on prevention and testing, long-term survivors can feel overlooked. These feelings of isolation have been made worse by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, HIV stigma, ageism, homophobia, racial discrimination, and other interrelated social issues. Substance use and mental health programs can ensure they identify and serve older Americans, including long-term survivors, who may struggle with feelings of social isolation, loneliness, and depression.

If you, or someone you know, is seeking help for substance use or mental illness, SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator can help you connect with treatment programs in your area. You can use this resource to locate substance use and/or mental health treatment providers in a confidential and anonymous manner.

On this 40th anniversary, SAMHSA is honored to work with our federal, domestic, and international partners and members of the HIV community in our shared effort to end the HIV epidemic in the United States.

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