How Can I Cope Emotionally With Herpes and Depression
Genital herpes is extremely common in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 1 in 6 Americans ages 14 to 49 live with genital herpes. Yet, despite its prevalence, this sexually transmitted disease (STD) still carries a degree of shame and stigma and can lead to depression and other mental health issues.
What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes is an STD caused by the herpes simplex virus, either type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2) and is characterized by outbreaks of blisters near the genitals. These blisters can pop and leave painful sores and can take up to a week to heal, but most people with genital herpes are asymptomatic and may never experience an outbreak of sores.
While genital herpes has no specific cure, medications are available to limit the frequency of outbreaks and make it less likely to pass the virus to a partner. Herpes can be more serious for immunocompromised individuals, but for most people, this disease is no more than an occasional inconvenience for their sex lives.
Educate yourself about herpes
The first step to maintaining your mental health after a herpes diagnosis is to learn as much as possible about the condition. With so much misinformation and stigma around herpes, individuals who are diagnosed with HSV may initially face a number of emotions, including depression, anxiety, grief and panic.
As with any disease of this nature and reputation, people tell all kinds of stories about genital herpes and the type of people who are infected by it. By educating yourself on HSV, you can dispel any fears you may have that are based on inaccurate or inadequate information. Learning more will also empower you to be knowledgeable about your health and make informed decisions about your sexual and romantic relationships.
Reframe STD stigma
Another way to feel better about your herpes diagnosis is to reframe the way you think about the virus and STDs in general.
STDs are stigmatized, but in reality, they are like any other disease. Herpes, in particular, is simply a skin condition. You wouldn’t shame yourself for catching poison ivy, so why be so hard on yourself for having herpes? Yet, internalizing messages you routinely hear about STDs is easy to do, especially if you expect to be called “dirty” or “damaged goods,” or if you feel you’re suffering some kind of moral punishment for promiscuity.
Realizing that these are simply judgments and not reality can release you from the shame that surrounds such accusations.
The worst thought to torture yourself with is that no one will want to have sex with you if you have an STD. That will likely be true if you don’t tell your partners and don’t take precautions, but you’re not that kind of person, are you?
Stigma related to STDs is largely based on sex negativity and moralization around sex. Other conditions caused by the herpes virus—chickenpox and shingles are both in that category—have no social stigma associated with them at all.
Anyone can get herpes. Anyone. Someone with many sexual partners. Someone who has only ever had one sexual encounter. Despite that, much of the stigma around STDs relates to the idea that only promiscuous individuals have such diseases. While having more sexual partners may put an individual at greater risk for STDs, it says nothing about the person’s moral worth.
Challenge the messaging around STDs, and you begin to break down the harm these ideas cause.
Get support for depression
A 2012 research study showed that adults with HSV-2 were twice as likely to experience depression, although the link between the two conditions is not entirely clear. But if you’re struggling, it’s OK to ask for help and, luckily, many sources of support are available for individuals with herpes.
A quick web search of “(city name) herpes support group” will likely yield results for you to connect in person with other people who face similar struggles. Searching for sex-positive support groups, in particular, may help you surround yourself with individuals who have shed the shame and fear of their diagnoses. Online support communities also abound.
Finally, if your diagnosis is negatively impacting your ability to perform daily activities, you may want to consider seeking professional help. But you should still vet potential therapists for sex-positivity, as a sex-negative therapist could make things worse.
How to cope emotionally with genital herpes
By educating yourself, rethinking STD stigma and getting support from others, you can make great strides in maintaining positive mental health after a genital herpes diagnosis. Be sure to educate yourself on safer sex practices, disclose your condition to new and existing sexual partners, and seek medical help to address outbreaks.
Herpes is not a social death sentence, and while your sex life may look different than before your diagnosis and treatment, you can still enjoy a vibrant and fulfilling one.