Addressing Mental Healthcare for HIV Patients

By: Javacia Harris Bowser

When Keith Matthews first started working as a nurse practitioner at Unity Wellness in Opelika, Alabama, he knew very little about HIV and AIDS. But now improving the health outcomes and quality of life of HIV patients is one of Keith’s greatest passions as a healthcare professional.

“Now that I’ve been in it, I don’t see myself doing anything else,” Keith says. “It’s great that it’s not a death sentence anymore and the longer I’m here, the more I see a lot of other barriers and social determinants of health that need to be addressed for certain populations.”

This passion motivated him to become a 2023-2024 Albert Schweitzer Fellow. This academic year Keith is working to address depression and anxiety in people living with HIV to increase their adherence to HIV treatment.

After being screened, patients who show evidence of mental health issues will be presented with treatment options ranging from medication and counseling to alternative methods such as meditation and prayer. Keith will follow up with patients on a regular basis to monitor outcomes.

Taking on a project like this is tough. Keith admits that when patients don’t follow up, he can get discouraged. But the patients who do follow through with the recommendations remind him the work is worthwhile.

“So while the project’s not going forward like I would like, I do see a lot of promise with more conversations around mental health,” Keith says. “So that’s been encouraging.”

Keith is especially focused on getting Black men at Unity Wellness to get the mental health care that they need.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Black men are less likely to seek treatment for mental health services and when they do, they are more likely to receive inadequate care.

To overcome the stigma that often comes with mental health issues, Keith will often talk with patients about changes in their appetite or sleep patterns – telltale signs of anxiety or depression.

Keith has already seen three patients show significant improvement with the help of guided meditation.

Balancing Acts

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship makes for a busy year for all students who participate. But this is a particularly hectic year for Keith. In addition to his fellowship, Keith works full time as a nurse practitioner at Unity Wellness. He’s working towards his Doctor of Nursing Practice at Auburn University. And he and his wife welcomed their first child last year.

But with the support and encouragement of his wife, Keith is finding a way to balance it all by “working smarter not harder,” he says.

And he’s confident the work is worth the effort.

Keith says through the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship he’s learning more about the barriers that underserved communities face when trying to obtain healthcare.

“ASF really has helped me think more critically, develop a new compassion towards individuals and not get so focused on the end goal, but about the journey itself,” he says.

That said, Keith does have a lofty long-term goal in mind. He hopes to use data from his research to help with writing a grant with the Alabama Department of Public Health that would allow the department to bring in therapists who would see patients in rural areas via telehealth.

In addition to being a practicing healthcare professional, Keith – who comes from a family of teachers — plans to be an adjunct professor too.

“In our clinic, we’ve had students in and I love just getting to share my nursing world and letting them see what we do here,” Keith says.

In the meantime, he’ll keep educating as many people as he can about what it really means to live with HIV.

He laments that many people still don’t understand how the disease is transmitted.

“I’ve had stories of patients whose families just shun them and turn them away because they have HIV, like they’re unclean or something,” Keith says.

He also wants HIV patients to know that they can still live a full life.

“It’s a chronic illness like diabetes or high blood pressure,” Keith says. “I tell my patients that they can continue to live strong, healthy lives like anyone else and they don’t have to have their dreams put on hold because they have HIV.”