What does stigma-free mean?


By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

Let’s be honest: we really can be our own worst enemy 😔. When that first HIV diagnosis comes in, we pile on a whole bunch of baggage and negativity on ourselves. It’s not our fault – we’ve had unhelpful opinions, stereotypes, and misinformation thrown at us for years!

Feelings of stigma – and self-stigma, which we place on ourselves – could explain why 20% of the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV remain untested. For many, it’s way easier to avoid HIV testing, than to accept possibly living with HIV 🤔.

The good news is, learning to overcome HIV self-stigma is absolutely possible. We promise! 🥰  So, let’s explore what causes self-stigma, and what we can do to support each other (and ourselves) to overcome it.

What does stigma-free mean for those living with HIV?

Self-stigma has been shown to affect a person’s ability to live positively ☀️. There are four impacts of self-stigma:

  • Personalized stigma: Your past experiences make you afraid of future events.
  • Disclosure concerns: You become nervous about telling others you have HIV.
  • Negative self-image: You feel shame or guilt about being diagnosed with HIV.
  • Concern about the attitudes of others: You worry that people with HIV are rejected when others find out.

Self-stigma can often feel real because we believe in it, and a cycle of blame, shame and negative feelings can take over. It’s important that we don’t shy away from this. We have to understand it to overcome it.

Achieving stigma-free means starting with real talk

Discrimination exists. People living with HIV may come face to face with the anger and the misplaced blame they are afraid of. They may even experience stigma within the healthcare industry 🏥. But getting the right treatment is so important to living a healthy, happy life with HIV.

To ensure you’re safe and get the care you need, make sure your doctor is knowledgeable about HIV care. Ask them if they are up-to-date on issues, training, and medication. It’s essential that you feel comfortable building a trusting relationship with your doctor, if you’re feeling judged or not listened to, then it’s ⏰ to find a new doctor.

How to overcome self-stigma

To become stigma-free, we’ve got to learn to be honest with ourselves – this means self-reflecting and figuring out what’s true and what isn’t. It might sound like a lot, but luckily, you aren’t alone.

  • Community: A big part of combating self-stigma is finding the right support group 💑. There are so many communities out there for HIV survivors (our own Positive Peers app being one). It’s important that you find a group of people that you can connect with and gain advice from.
  • Changing your self-beliefs: We’ve said it before, but you are so much more than your HIV status. Daily affirmations aren’t just silly; they work. Tell yourself the truth about how beautiful, valuable and worthy of love you are, and watch your mindset transform.
  • Therapy: Affirmations might not be enough. You may need to challenge some core beliefs you have, positive or negative. These may be beliefs like “I am unworthy” or “I am unhealthy.” Even a tiny thing can be enough to show yourself that the core belief is wrong, and to end it 💥.

Read on

Want to know more? We’ve gone in-depth on overcoming self-stigma here 📖. But if you are looking for help, you’ve already come to the right place.

The Positive Peers app is proven to help with feelings of isolation. It gives on-demand help, reducing stigma and feelings of being alone while upping viral suppression. Users say that they experience the app as non-discriminatory, inclusive, and that it helped them find a sense of belonging.

Learn more here.


Come join our private, stigma-free, supportive community.

Health management tools with medication & appointment reminders.
Social networking in a community conversation & private chats.