I’m HIV positive and 13 Reasons Why let me down
When I was diagnosed with HIV two years ago aged 19, I didn’t know anything about it, and I was terrified. I thought I was going to die.
Watching the final episodes of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why this week, you would’ve thought I was right in thinking that way as – spoiler alert – character Justin was diagnosed with HIV and then quickly died.
But I wasn’t right, and neither is 13 Reasons Why’s depiction of HIV in 2020. And, with such a young viewership, that’s a huge source of concern for me and all the people living with HIV whose lives are still impacted by other people’s outdated views and ignorance to progress made.
The show hasn’t been without its controversy, but over the years it has attempted to tackle some difficult issues head on. From rape to suicide and drug taking, it’s tried – although not always successfully – to open up conversations about experiences many young people experience.
There’s also been a clear effort to ensure there is good representation of queer relationships on screen.
All of this make it more frustrating that the only time HIV is mentioned, it is completely sensationalised and missing key facts about the realities of HIV.
Justin suddenly collapses in the penultimate episode, is rushed to hospital and is tested positive for HIV. His condition quickly deteriorates, and he then dies of an AIDS-related illnesses.
This might make for a dramatic storyline to kill off one of the main characters, but it leaves out so much of what HIV actually looks like in 2020.
Being diagnosed with HIV left me feeling inconsolable. I thought it was the end of the world, and quite frankly, I saw no future.
What I thought was just a regular check up at the clinic turned into any 19-year old’s worst nightmare. I remember feeling claustrophobic – like my life was collapsing in on me, like there was no escaping the news I had just been told. It felt like this was it for me.
Back then, my knowledge on HIV was limited. We had never touched on HIV/AIDs in school and the only thing I vaguely remember knowing was that HIV could develop into AIDS, which could be deadly if untreated.
It felt like a coming out story all over again. Suddenly I was trapped back in this closet and fear of rejection from those around me filled my body with terror.
I didn’t know that drugs were available to treat HIV. I didn’t know that those same drugs would supress the virus so that it would never cause me any problems medically. I didn’t know that those same drugs would prevent me from ever passing the virus on to anyone else.
Despite the emotional anguish of my diagnosis, the news around treatment gave me a sense of hope. Hope that I would be able to live another day, and hope that I wouldn’t be a risk to those that I love and cherished around me. This is the sort of information about HIV we need to see on TV.
Because misinformation about HIV continues to fuel stigma and creates fear. This in turn can have a huge impact on the mental health of people living with HIV, with rates of depression twice as high compared to the wider population.
That’s why the way in which HIV is portrayed on TV really matters. Shows like 13 Reasons Why, which have such a big following, have a responsibility to present storylines in a way that doesn’t completely misrepresent the facts.
Living with HIV is still hard and I’m not denying that. I’ve been refused a tattoo because of my HIV status, I’ve experienced rejection because of it on dating apps. But having the only HIV storyline in the show end in death, really risks turning the clock back on nearly four decades of massive progress in the fight against HIV.
We need greater visibility of HIV to breakdown misconceptions and move things forward – but not when it does exactly the opposite.
Because too often it’s fear that stops people coming forward and getting tested. Most people still don’t know the realities of HIV and that’s one of the biggest barriers to ending new transmissions here in the UK.
For example, Terrence Higgins Trust found that only 19 per cent of UK adults know that effective HIV treatment means people living with HIV can’t pass on the virus.
I take two pills every day and can live a normal and healthy life. That’s how I want HIV to be represented on screen, not used as the basis of a sensational story arc.
You can find out more about Terrence Higgins Trust here.
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