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HIV Support Groups Give Survival Advantage

WebMD Health News

June 13, 2000 -- For HIV-positive women, supportive group therapy provides a sense of belonging and offers a significant survival advantage, according to a report in a recent issue of the journal Psychosomatics.

"Women [with HIV] often have shorter survival times than men, but ties to other women with HIV may be one of the factors that extends life," says study co-author Renee Robinson-Severt, RN, MA, former clinical manager of the HIV Neurobehavioral Research Center in San Diego.

Robinson-Severt and colleagues explored the role of social support on survival time in 21 women with HIV. Ten of these women participated in a 12-week support group; the remaining 11 did not. The program, conducted by licensed therapists, focused on self-image, parenting, intimacy, privacy, humor, relaxation, spirituality, and dying.

The study participants were mostly in their late 30s, had at least a high school education, and were single. Most had a history of depression (90%), and 60% abused drugs. Most were infected by a heterosexual partner and had been diagnosed two to three years earlier. Most were on retroviral therapy for three months or more, and nearly half eventually died of pneumonia.

Only 10% of the study's support group participants were ethnic minorities, compared with nearly two thirds in the comparison group, yet minorities in both groups survived longer than Caucasians. But overall, support group participants survived an average of 28 months longer. Having fewer children also increased survival, perhaps by simplifying social roles, the authors suggest.

In fact, members of one longstanding group have been HIV-positive for 15 years. "Women with HIV have very special needs and support groups help empower them," says Terri Wilder, LMSW, program manager at the AIDS Survival Project in Atlanta. Founded in 1993, Wilder's group is the oldest program in Atlanta for women.

The close-knit group of eight, with diverse social and ethnic backgrounds, meets weekly for 90 minutes. "They view their time together as sacred and everyone knows not to disturb them," adds Wilder. "That's why we screen new members carefully and require a minimum commitment of at least six weeks."

Wilder tells WebMD that many HIV support groups are funded through the Ryan White CARE Act, introduced by actress Elizabeth Taylor 10 years ago. The CARE Act, which designates federal funds for health and social services, expires this September.

One HIV-positive woman claims family members and health care workers simply can't provide the same kind of support. "We support each other physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally," says former schoolteacher Eva Hansen, 58, whose husband died of AIDS in 1988. "We also alert each other of medication side effects, as only people with HIV can."

Hansen, who was told she had six months to live in 1984, describes the group as a sisterhood. "The support of the group allows us to lead fuller lives," she says. "I schedule all my vacations around the group and one woman just got married! Seeing her move on with her life, and being a part of it, was therapeutic for all of us."

The study was supported with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

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