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All in the Family

Kin can make a difference for men with HIV

SATURDAY, May 19, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The ties that bind can be a vital lifeline if you've been diagnosed with HIV.

While many people with HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- turn to friends for support, recent research from Ohio State University suggests family members can provide their own unique form of emotional sustenance.

"Family members who are supportive can provide a tremendous amount of additional resources to people who are HIV-positive," says Julie Serovich, associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State.

Serovich has studied HIV-infected men since 1997, under a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health. In her most recent study of 134 HIV-positive men, Serovich measured depression symptoms and found the men were less likely to be depressed if they received support from their families.

"The more support they received, the less depression they experienced," Serovich says.

The study was published in a recent issue of the journal AIDS Care.

HIV patients may have difficulty disclosing their illness to their family because some of the behaviors that put people at risk for the virus -- including homosexuality and intravenous drug use -- are socially unacceptable to many people.

"Throughout the history of the disease, it's really friends that gay men have relied on" for comfort and support, Serovich says.

What's new in the study, she adds, "is the fact that family really can be so much more helpful than we had originally maybe even thought."

"There's an added value in your family being there for you when you're facing this kind of trauma."

In an earlier study of 142 HIV-positive men, Serovich found that those who received support from their families were less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors than those without family support.

Serovich says that kind of information could help reduce the spread of HIV, which has infected more than 750,000 Americans in the last two decades and has led to the deaths of more than 430,000.

These findings indicate doctors, therapists and counselors should do more to encourage HIV-positive men to seek support from their families -- even if it may require some emotionally charged work to rebuild those particular relationships, she says.

"Very often family members aren't supportive. We know that. And we know family can't always be counted on. But when they can be, they seem to be making a difference," Serovich says.

Some men are overwhelmed when their families reach out and embrace them, instead of rejecting them.

"We've interviewed men who found that, very surprisingly, their families were very supportive. They hadn't told them [about the HIV diagnosis] for years and then when they did, they found that indeed their families were very supportive," Serovich says.

She suggests HIV-positive people discuss a family reconciliation with a therapist first. Or approach a family member they know will be supportive -- a sister, mother or aunt, for example -- to gauge the potential overall family response.

"It can be quite volatile for some families," says Judy Neidig, an assistant professor at Ohio State's College of Medicine.

But there are many ways a family can help, she adds.

People with HIV often have to cope with complex and expensive drug regimens. Families can help patients financially or ensure they stick to their medication schedules, says Neidig, who has extensive experience working with AIDS patients.

"It can be devastating to find out you have HIV, and families can offer support at the time of diagnosis to cope with the fact that these are often young people facing the prospect of their own mortality for the first time," Neidig says.

What To Do

To learn more about HIV and AIDS, go to the AIDS Medical Encyclopedia, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Or you can read these HealthScout stories.

To find out what clinical trials are being done on AIDS, check Veritas Medicine.

SOURCES: Interviews with Julie Serovich, Ph.D., associate professor of human development and family science; Judy Neidig, R.N., Ph.D., assistant professor, College of Medicine; both at Ohio State University, Columbus
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