Seeing Friends and Lovers Die : AIDS Causes Gays Depression, Isolation

Associated Press

As AIDS kills their friends and lovers, homosexual men are suffering increased anxiety, depression, isolation and sexual disorders, a New York therapist said.

“People in their 20s, 30s and 40s are not used to being surrounded by so many people who are dying,” Michael Shernoff, a psychiatric social worker, said at a sex research convention. “People are feeling under attack physically. You never know when you’re going to die.”

Shernoff, the director of a private mental health clinic for homosexuals in Manhattan and a volunteer at New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis clinic, discussed the psychological impact of AIDS on gay men during a workshop at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex.

600 Therapists Expected

The convention, which runs through Sunday, is expected to draw more than 600 sex therapists and researchers from around the world.

Shernoff, whose 43-year-old brother died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome May 31, said: “It was like watching myself dying. . . . I never thought at (age) 34 that I would be an expert at dealing with death and dying.”


He said AIDS, which destroys the immune system’s ability to combat infection, is causing increased psychological and sexual problems among the 125 gay men seen at his clinic every week, including the majority who do not have the disease. He called them “the worried well.”

“People don’t know whether they’re going to get it or when someone else is going to get it,” Shernoff said. “There’s fear, there’s depression. Some people are responding (by being) alienated and isolated.”

Love a Death Sentence?

Sexual problems, such as an inability to become aroused, are also seen more frequently as many gays ask themselves, “Is loving me a death sentence for somebody?” Shernoff said.

On the positive side, he said, AIDS also is making gay men care more for each other, learn to deal with each other better on a non-sexual basis and realize the value of life so they can make the most of it.

Why should the public care about AIDS’ psychological impact on gay men?

“It’s a precursor for the way it’s going to affect the rest of society” as it spreads to the heterosexual population, Shernoff replied.

Shernoff said AIDS is making some “closet” gays question their own homosexuality. They delay telling their friends and family they are gay because they “don’t want to identify with a community that is under attack.”

Loss of Joy Reported

Some gays respond by trying to be heterosexual, others withdraw from sex entirely, and many report “a loss of joy in life, a loss of joy in sex,” he said.

Shernoff said many gays decided to follow medical guidelines for “safe sex"--sexual activities that don’t involve the exchange of body fluids implicated in transmitting AIDS--but need counseling on how to insist that their partners also obey the guidelines.

Because so many of their friends are dying at a young age, “a lot of (gay) men are feeling prematurely geriatric” and are becoming numb to death, Shernoff said.

Healthy gay men sometimes abandon hope for the future because they are so fearful, he said. One of his clients, a healthy and successful novelist, won’t write more novels because it takes too long and “he doesn’t believe in his future.”