Racism, discrimination, homophobia, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) fuel the HIV epidemic among many young black and Latino men, according to a study by Perry Halkitis, director of the Center of Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies (CHIBPS) at NYU Steinhardt.
Halkitis’ study, “Measurement Model Exploring a Syndemic in Emerging Adult Gay and Bisexual Men,” was published in the February edition of AIDS and Behavior. These are the first major findings of Halkitis’ larger research effort, Project-18, a multi-year research study that follows a racially, ethnically, and economically diverse cohort of approximately 600 urban HIV-negative young men. Participants of Project-18 are self-identified as men who have sex with men (MSM), currently live in New York City, and are monitored every six months for three years as they transition from adolescence into young adulthood.
Studies show that gay, bisexual, and other MSMs account for more than 50 percent of all infections and more than 50 percent of recent HIV infections in the U.S., with some 70 percent in urban centers.
Results from this latest analysis support the notion that mental health, drug use, and unprotected sex are inextricably linked.
“The more burden these men face for being persons of color, economically disadvantaged, homosexual, foreign born, and simply discriminated against, impact their mental health,” said Halkitis. “Our additional analysis found that foreign-born men of lower socioeconomic status demonstrate a greater likelihood of unprotected sex.”
Halkitis asserts that more trauma leads to more mental health burdens and exacerbates risky behavior, such as drug and alcohol abuse and unprotected sex. “The fact of the matter is that these psychosocial stressors that gay men experience heighten their vulnerability to HIV,” Halkitis explained.
Halkitis received $2.9 million from the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2009 to begin his study. While previous studies further conclude that consistent education efforts will aid in the prevention of spreading the disease among this population, Halkitis asserts that the research community must tackle the issue from a psychological and mental health standpoint.
“We take a holistic approach and believe that health states must be considered synergistically,” Halkitis explained. “Through this study, what we’ve done is shown that these health problems – mental health burdens and risky behavior — are highly related when it comes to this population of gay men and their contraction of HIV.”