When UCLA researchers examined HIV and depression among Latinos and African Americans in South Los Angeles, however, the results were surprising: There was no significant difference in depression based on HIV status.
HIV vs. societal stressors
Student researchers from Charles R. Drew/UCLA Medical Education Program collected data from subjects at community outreach sites and HIV/AIDS clinics over a two-year period. Depression was significantly higher in males, Latinos, participants with income under $10,000, those with history of childhood sexual abuse and those who abused alcohol. However, depression prevalence didn't vary much between HIV-positive and HIV-negative participants.
"We aren't going to jump to conclusions before we get more participants and data," explains Alicia Morehead-Gee, whose work on this study earned her top recognition at Senior Scholarship Day for the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "But it seems people in this population are already at high risk for depression because of their environment, having low income and dealing with stressors other than HIV — like a history of childhood sexual abuse or substance abuse."
Realizing hidden depression
Morehead-Gee, who ultimately wants to practice medicine in underserved Los Angeles communities, says working on the study has been an eye-opening experience about the lives of people who might one day be her patients.
"I was surprised how many people I talked to were depressed in general, regardless of HIV status," she says. "And many of them didn't even realize it. I don't know if they had ever been screened for depression at all. So we hope this study will help illustrate the need for increased depression screening in vulnerable populations, particularly among those who've experienced childhood sexual abuse and those who abuse alcohol."
What's next for the study and its lead researcher? After graduation, Morehead-Gee will pass the torch to another student in hopes that a larger sample size will yield more conclusive insights into the relationship between HIV and depression.
The M4 student plans to enter an internal medicine residency this fall in the interest of becoming a primary care physician connected to a university hospital: "I'd like to work with patients and be able to teach med students and residents. While being part of the Charles Drew and David Geffen School of Medicine programs, I got the opportunity to [learn from and] work with amazing doctors who guided me, but also trusted me to treat patients with complicated medical situations. That was really important to my education," she affirms. "So I want to be a doctor, to teach and to give back to my community."