Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Psychological and Social Foundations

Major Professor

Kathy Bradley-Klug, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Emily Shaffer-Hudkins, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Marilyn Stern, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Robert Dedrick, Ph.D.


Pediatric HIV, Health literacy, Depression, Anxiety, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder


Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that affects the body’s immune system (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2016a). HIV is a worldwide epidemic and disproportionately impacts youth in the United States. Youth living with HIV (YLWH) face significant mental health problems, namely depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with rates of these disorders discrepant from those in the general population. In addition to psychological difficulties, health literacy is another factor that influences individuals with HIV and is a priority of research with adolescents (Kalichman et al., 2000; Manganello, 2008). The National HIV/AIDS Strategy: Update 2020 (White House Office of National AIDS Policy, 2015) identified youth, ages 13 to 24 years, as a key population needing broad support not only for HIV prevention but also engagement in care including improving mental health and health literacy. The current study explored the extent to which YLWH were health literate in addition to the extent to which they exhibited psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, the study examined the extent to which health literacy and psychological symptoms were associated with health outcomes.

A total of 145 YLWH between the ages of 13 and 25 years participated in the study. Participants completed the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D; Radloff, 1977), Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7 Item Scale (GAD-7; Spitzer, Kroenke, Williams, & Lowe, 2006), Primary Care-PTSD Screen (PC-PTSD; Prins et al., 2003), and Brief Estimate of Health Knowledge and Action-HIV Version (Osborn, Davis, Bailey, & Wolf, 2010). Of the 145 participants, 103 completed the CES-D, 144 completed the GAD-7, 131 completed the PC-PTSD, and 102 completed the BEHKA-HIV. In addition, participants’ biological markers of immune functioning (i.e., CD4 count and viral load) were obtained from medical abstraction.

Results indicated the sample reported high levels of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Thirty-five percent of participants screened positive for depressive symptoms, 26% screened positive for anxiety symptoms, and 21% screened positive for PTSD symptoms. Participants had a moderate amount of HIV knowledge and the majority reported taking their medications under most conditions. Age was a significant predictor of CD4 count and viral load such that increasing age was associated with worse immune system functioning. Educational attainment was a significant predictor of CD4 count and to a lesser extent viral load indicating that greater education was associated with better immune system functioning. There was an interaction between mode of transmission and psychological symptoms. For perinatally infected youth, greater psychological symptoms were associated with a decline in CD4 count. The same decline was not seen for behaviorally infected youth. Health literacy (knowledge and action) added significantly to the explanation of the variance in viral load. Decreasing action scores were statistically associated with an increased likelihood of having a detectable viral load.

These findings point to the need for prevention and intervention mental health services for YLWH. Future research should determine prevention and intervention strategies for mental health issues with YLWH in particular. Additionally, health literacy is an important factor that should be addressed by practitioners working with YLWH. More research needs to be conducted to determine the best way to measure health literacy in YLWH and how to intervene with improving health literacy.

Included in

Psychology Commons