“How could they understand what I’m going through? They probably believe in the stigma themselves.”
I never received the support of a mental health professional after being diagnosed with genital herpes — HSV-2 in my case — in July 2015. I considered seeking outside guidance, but my internal monologue concluded that inviting a stranger into the dark state of my mind would result in additional emotional turmoil instead of understanding.
Effects of Genital Herpes Stigma
My internalization of genital herpes stigma revealed itself to me the moment that I received my diagnosis. When I heard the word “herpetic,” my mind worked into overdrive as it scanned the accumulated stereotypes and messages that my brain had received over my 22 years of life: dirty, diseased, unworthy, and unlovable.
As days passed following my initial diagnosis, the effects of stigma did not retreat, but my curiosity expanded. I wanted to know more about herpes: how I contracted it, who I contracted it from, and how it would alter my life. While some of my questions remain unanswered to this day, my research led me to rationalize genital herpes for what it is: a common infection transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. While stigma was somewhat navigable, my emotions teetered on the edge of a sinking ship.
Processing Emotions After Diagnosis
Healing and positivity are popular concepts that surround mental health, especially through social media platforms. We live in a world that constantly tells us to look on the bright side when faced with adversity. “It could be worse; just focus on the positives,” reiterate peers.
While I believe there is a positive side to a herpes diagnosis and can attest to my own story of self-empowerment, I also sympathize with the initial feelings of shame and worthlessness many people feel. These are not feelings that we can immediately rationalize away or sheath beneath a cloak of sunshine. These are real, raw human emotions that warrant exploration and processing.
I know what it feels like to look in the mirror and not recognize myself or acknowledge any ounce of self-love. I know what it feels like to question a future sex life and relationship potential. I know what it feels like to feel alone in these thoughts, convinced that no one could understand the mental anguish of internalized herpes stigma. To cloud myself in one too many nights of too much to drink, and little to remember. Herpes is more than a physical diagnosis — its associated stigma echoes a mental health diagnosis, too.
Finding a Mental Health Professional After Herpes Diagnosis
A herpes diagnosis may lead to a period of overwhelming sadness, embarrassment, anxiety, or behaviors that result in a pattern of addiction. While it may seem that a therapist could not possibly understand the root of herpes stigma, most therapists are trained to navigate human emotion and internal thought processes. No matter which theoretic lens or approach a therapist guides with, an effective therapist will provide a safe space for clients to discuss their perspectives. A space for clients to be seen, heard, and acknowledged, so that the therapist is better able to provide emotional support and help clients overcome emotions, life circumstances, and, potentially, behaviors that regulate their daily mindset.
No matter your life circumstances, finding an appropriate mental health professional can be a daunting task in and of itself. There are various specializations, training certifications, and theoretical models that practitioners utilize that may work for some clients, but not others. Psychology Today offers a “Find a Therapist” tool that allows users to search for therapists, treatment centers, and support groups in a certain area. While it is unlikely that a therapist’s specialization will list genital herpes, a therapist is more than likely familiar with stigma associated diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and the like.
Something else to look for on your search for a mental health professional is any credential or certification in human sexuality education. A therapist with this specialization will have a better sense of conversations surrounding human sexuality and the knowledge of how to facilitate a safer and more inclusive space to discuss such sensitive and socially taboo topics.
Building a Support System
Unfortunately, not everyone has access to mental health care and therefore must rely on external support systems. Disclosures can be daunting, especially when you’re recently diagnosed, but a supportive friend will do their best to understand and support you in the best way they know how — and they may not know how to support you through your diagnosis. A supportive friend will play the role of an active listener, offering space to let you vent or cry. A supportive friend will ask how they can best help you through your healing process. A supportive friend may also learn of their own intrinsic stigma about sexually transmitted infections during this process, and you both may be required to deal with the deconstruction of stigma together.
Learning to Support Yourself
While the support of others is integral in helping us move beyond adverse events, it’s just as important to make strides to support ourselves.
Do your research: Review factual and scientific information about herpes from resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization, and the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). The fact sheets they offer helped me realize that herpes was not as rare as I once thought.
Be realistic about search results: Google is both a treasure trove and a travesty. Beyond government and world health regulations, there are many writers (including myself!), podcasters, and activists who share their real-life stories and experiences of living with genital herpes online. While these stories are integral to defeating stigma and normalizing the reality of genital herpes, there are some comments that do not always reflect a medically accurate perspective.
Practice self-care: When was the last time since your diagnosis that you treated yourself and your body to something rewarding? Whether it’s a physical fitness class, guided meditation, tickets to a sporting event, or something else, a “you day” can do wonders for your self-esteem and remind you that you are worthy of this life.
Be accountable: Know when you may need to ask for help, whether that’s from a friend, loved one, or health care professional.
My career path to sex therapy began long before my herpes diagnosis; however, my diagnosis allowed me a unique perspective in alignment with my purpose. There is a dire need for mental health professionals to cultivate an increased awareness and sensitivity to the psychological effects of genital herpes stigma, and more importantly, address it. Through my graduate education and activist pursuits, I strive to be the person that I did not have when I was diagnosed.
Although I successfully navigated through my diagnosis, it was not without its challenges, some of which could have been avoided with outside counsel from a mental health professional. I encourage you to seek mental health support for your herpes; it can make a world of difference.