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Since we opened our doors in 1988, Casey House has been passionately committed to breaking down barriers and removing stigmas for our clients. Yet, outside of our walls HIV/AIDS continues to carry a stigma.

For the increasingly high percentage of people living with both HIV/AIDS and mental health concerns – which also frequently bear a societal stigma – it’s common to feel isolated and helpless. Issues can feel amplified and become more difficult to manage.

This combination isn’t an anomaly. In fact, recent research conducted in Sweden finds that mental health conditions are more common among individuals with HIV compared to people without HIV, a jarring revelation when you consider that one in five Canadians will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lifetime.

Back in 1988, Casey House exclusively provided end of life care for clients, but since then we’ve evolved. As medications advanced, clients started to live longer and stay with us longer. They started to get well, and it became clear that living with HIV/AIDS wasn’t the end or the sum of their struggles. We realized we needed to deal with more than the disease: we needed to consider and care for a person’s whole life, including their mental health.

Today, 80% of Casey House’s clients have a mental illness.  To successfully deliver judgement-free holistic client-driven care, our staff needed to understand the intersection of HIV/AIDS and mental health, so we invested in education for staff in partnership with psychiatric consultants from St. Michael’s Hospital. What started as small seminars grew to an inter-professional initiative that needed to move to a larger venue, with AIDS service organizations, public health workers, long term care facilitators, housing agencies, and other groups coming together to access quality information about mental health, particularly as it applies to those with HIV/AIDS. We began recording and posting our sessions, eventually creating webinars to share the information even further into the care community.

The more staff understand about anxiety, bipolar illness, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions, psychosis, substance dependency, and suicide, among other mental health conditions, the better they can help without judgement and understand our clients’ situations.

Learning is one piece of it, but bringing mental health support to our clients is another. We’re evolving and honing our programs to address the mental health needs of our clients.  This includes providing a variety of emotional, social and psychological counselling services in both group and individual settings to support physical and mental health and well-being. It also means we’re promoting and practicing mindfulness for both our clients and our staff.

We’re innovating, learning, and growing our skillsets, and are committed and motivated to making a change. While we know we aren’t there yet, we’re making access to information about mental health a priority for our staff, and services available to our clients.

Our clients deserve to be cared for and treated with dignity, and that means recognizing, understanding and treating their mental health needs.