Landmark new research presented at the recent 24th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2022) in Montreal has found that adolescents and young adults infected with HIV at birth are more likely to attempt suicide than their HIV-negative peers.  Additionally, those facing stigma and other hardships in life are even more likely to try to take their own lives.  This is the first study dedicated to evaluating suicide risk among youth living with HIV. 

The circumstances for young people with HIV are unique and part of a larger problem of youth suicide, which has mushroomed in recent decades. Suicide is now the second most common killer of adolescents and young adults, taking the lives of more than one in 10,000 every year. A multitude of hardships including mental illness, a history of arrest, city stress, pregnancy, and other negative life experiences can lead to higher rates of suicide attempts among adolescents and young adults. 

Feeling stigma about their status can be associated with suicide attempts among youths living with HIV. Additionally, the systemic racism that leads Black and Latino youth to disproportionately confront discrimination, racial disparities, income inequality, and traumatic life events can also lead to higher suicide rates for those who carry the virus. 

As well, this compelling and significant new research has uncovered that LGBTQ youth who acquired HIV at birth have higher rates of suicide than straight and cisgender peers their age.  According to a Trevor Project national survey released months ago, almost half of LGBTQ youth seriously contemplated suicide during the past year.

Fortunately, the study contains promising news: young people living with HIV are less likely to attempt suicide if they feel a strong sense of family and self-esteem. Developing such support could very well be instrumental.

As stated in the opening, this research, led by Philip Kreniske, Ph.D., of the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University, is the first of its kind and shows the need for further investigation into mental health among youths who carry the virus. Dr. Kreniske’s team compared a group of 206 young adults in New York City who were born with HIV to a group of 134 who were exposed to HIV in the womb–but did not contract the virus. All participants identified as Black, Latino, or both; at about 12 years old, on average; and were enrolled in the study between 2003 and 2008. 

Respondents were asked about various sociodemographic, structural, and emotional factors. Overall, HIV-positive youth were found to be 1.74 times more likely than their HIV-negative peers to have attempted suicide during the past year.

However, several risk factors significantly increased the likelihood of suicide attempts, which include:  

  • Dealing with a psychiatric disorder (3.32 times as likely)
  • Being arrested in the past year (3.05 times)
  • Experiencing HIV stigma (2.46 times)
  • Being pregnant or having a pregnant partner (2.28 times)
  • Experiencing extreme city stress (2.28 times)
  • Experiencing a negative life event (1.27 times).

Conversely, factors associated with a lower risk of suicide attempts included: 

  • Identifying as straight or heterosexual (0.27 times as likely)
  • Having high family self-concept (0.36 times)
  • Having high personal self-concept (0.45 times).

According to, “Many of the associations with suicidality observed in this study are consistent with those seen in previous research on mental health among young adults, such as psychiatric disorders, drug use, and sexual and gender-minority status. The study sheds light on potential mental health care interventions for young people living with HIV. 

“The authors recommend further research on intersectional identities and the impact of systemic racism on suicide as well as studies to further investigate HIV stigma among youth and how it might impact suicide risk.”

Dr. Kreniske concluded, “For adolescents and young adults living with HIV, existing connections with medical clinics might provide an opportunity to intervene and address suicidality.  This falls in line with recent World Health Organization reports for integrating mental health into HIV services. I think, particularly, we need to [implement] suicide screeners and other tools to address this urgent issue.”