Promoting child and adolescent mental health in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.

Felton Earls, CHASE: Child Health and Social Ecology, Harvard Medical School, 2 Arrow Street, Suite 400, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; Email:


Background:  The pandemic of HIV/AIDS is actually a composite of many regional and national-level epidemics. The progress made in many parts of the developed and developing world is tempered by the continued devastating consequences of HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This review focuses on the ways in which children and adolescents are impacted by the epidemic, giving particular attention to their mental health.

Methods:  A health promotion framework is adopted to guide analysis. Three issues are covered: prevention of HIV infection, care and treatment of children infected with HIV, and care of children whose caregivers are ill or have died of AIDS. Existing reviews and literature search engines were used to review the scientific literature, focusing on the past five years.

Results:  Preventive interventions continue to manifest limited benefits in behavioral changes. More complex causal models and improved behavioral measures are needed. In the African context, the time has come to view pediatric AIDS as a chronic disease in which the mental health of caregivers and children influences important aspects of disease prevention and management. Increasingly sophisticated studies support earlier findings that social and psychological functioning, educational achievement and economic well-being of children who lose parents to AIDS are worse than that of other children.

Conclusions:  Important changes are taking place in SSA in increased access to HIV testing and antiretroviral therapies. To be effective in promoting mental health of children and adolescents, interventions require a more fundamental understanding of how to build HIV competence at personal and community levels. A key recommendation calls for the design and execution of population-based studies that include both multilevel and longitudinal features. Such rigorous conceptual and empirical investigations that assess the capacities of children are required to mobilize children, families and communities in comprehensive actions plans for prevention, treatment and care in response to the enduring HIV/AIDS pandemic.