What Puts Women at Risk? – Social Isolation

[D]epression is especially common in HIV-positive persons who are stigmatized and those who lack social support, especially women.1
– researcher Bronwen Lichtenstein

According to a 2002 study by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), “HIV-positive women with children are more likely than men to suffer from chronic sorrow related to their illness, fear of death, poverty and social isolation.” The same study found that African-American women suffered from depression at twice the rate of white women.

A cruel circle

What is chronic sorrow, this sadness without end? It is the emotional low that comes from sickness, impairment, or a long-term disability. Along with continued feelings of stress, it can affect the immune system. This is very serious for someone with a virus like HIV, which attacks the same system.

While many gay men living with HIV are able to turn to the gay community and queer-positive health support, the same kind of accepting culture is not there for the majority of HIV-positive women. The stigma, stereotypes, ignorance and lack of support women are confronted with leads to what is known as social isolation.

This kind of isolation is the result of a lack of contact with other people in normal daily living. Being cut off like this affects morale, and can result in fewer social and economic opportunities.

It can lead to a deepening chronic sorrow, more stress and more sickness.

This is a cruel circle to live in.

The study by the UAB had a number of important findings:

  • 7 out of 9 women were depressed, while fewer than half of the HIV-positive men in the study experienced depression
  • 78% of the study’s women complained of being isolated from society and stigmatized by family and friends
    • 18% of the men complained of being stigmatized
    • 3% of the men complained of being isolated – but for them, this was because of illness, rather than due to stigma
  • 9% of the women studied said they had positive family support compared to a majority of men reporting good family support
  • most women faced rejection by family members, with some no longer able to visit at all
  • motherhood made women that much more depressed, as they both mourned for the loss of their own health and relationships and also feared for their childrens’ futures

The UAB study shows how important it is for women to have support programs that are aware of how social isolation and stigma affects those who are HIV positive. It concludes that one-size-fits-all programs may further marginalize people with HIV, affecting their health. More studies of women with HIV could lead to greater insights.

“Particular attention should be paid to such stressors as motherhood, poverty, lack of social support, especially for HIV-positive women.”

– researcher Bronwen Lichtenstein

Women in Toronto face these same issues. As a service provider, you can make a difference by understanding the role that social isolation plays in HIV prevention and support.


More from Shared Health Exchange

1Study Finds Chronic Sorrow Higher for HIV-Positive Women Than Men, University of Alabama at Birmingham media release, January 29, 2002
3How Canada Performs, Details and Analysis, Society, Social Isolation, Conference Board of Canada online
4Study Finds Chronic Sorrow Higher for HIV-Positive Women Than Men,