Dr. Robert Remien on Mental Health and Ending the HIV Epidemic Lands Prime Plenary Spot at CROI 2018

March 27, 2018
Addressing Mental Health: A Crucial Component to Ending the HIV Epidemic

Earlier this month in Boston, the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) 2018 held its 25th annual event. This conference is the preeminent gathering of leading scientists to focus on infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. Since the conference began in the 1990s, many medical professionals have attended, including Columbia Psychiatry’s Dr. Robert Remien, a specialist in mental health, sexual risk behavior, and adherence to treatment and care.

This year, Dr. Remien’s role would be a little different.

Every year, CROI only features six plenary speakers. In CROI’s 25-year history, this is the first time they chose to feature “Mental Health” in a prime Plenary spot. Dr. Remien was selected to deliver this Plenary. His presentation was titled “Addressing Mental Health: A Crucial Component to Ending the HIV Epidemic.” It was an extremely successful presentation, bringing a focus on how mental health treatment can effectively reduce the spread of HIV.  

Addressing Mental Health: A Crucial Component to Ending the HIV Epidemic

In his Plenary presentation, Dr. Remien discussed how mental health problems interfere with optimal outcomes for HIV prevention and treatment. He highlighted how we must do a better job of diagnosing and successfully treating mental health problems among people vulnerable to acquiring HIV and people living with HIV. This will help us reach global goals (supported by UNAIDS) of having at least 90% of people living with HIV diagnosed, 90% on treatment (antiretroviral therapy (ART)) and 90% achieving viral suppression, as well as achieving local and global goals of bringing about an end to the HIV epidemic (which many have proposed is actually achievable with currently available and effective medical treatments).

During his plenary, Dr. Remien described how mental health disorders can both biologically and behaviorally interfere with treatments for HIV. Furthermore, he discussed the challenges that are faced globally in diagnosing and receiving adequate mental health treatment to all of the people who need it, particularly in communities at risk for HIV. In an interview following his plenary, Dr. Remien explained how he “also drew attention to the optimal points in time – along our HIV prevention and treatment continua – for timely intervention – i.e., opportunities for intervening with mental health screening and provision of mental health care, that would improve patient well-being and overall health outcomes.”

Finally, Dr. Remien highlighted the range of successful evidence-based treatment approaches available and how their integration into the ongoing HIV medical care is essential.

The first time CROI chose to feature “Mental Health” in a prime plenary spot

This is the first time in its 25-year history that CROI chose to feature “Mental Health” in a prime plenary spot. This is a significant honor. “It made me feel pleased that the scientific planning committee decided to feature Mental Health, and honored and humbled that I was selected as the person to deliver a Plenary talk on this topic,” said Dr. Remien. “I was excited, but also nervous – knowing how important it was to represent the complex mental health field well – and to do so with a mix of rigorous science and humanity.”

Dr. Remien was extremely pleased at the turnout and reaction to his presentation, which he gave to a filled auditorium of 4,000 - 5,000 people and resonated across social media.

Dr. Remien hopes that CROI will feature more “mental health” related presentations in the future. “I hope that having brought this to the attention of the broad CROI audience will stimulate more scientific research (and presentations) in the area of mental health and HIV disease – increasing our understanding of both biological and behavioral pathways of impact – and most importantly, will alter policy and practice in the real world.”

About Dr. Remien

Dr. Remien is the Director of the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies, an inter-disciplinary research Center with a strong focus on mental/behavioral health and HIV prevention and care, the integration of biological and behavioral research, and implementation science. Dr. Remien is also Professor of Clinical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University and in the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Dr. Remien is also Associate Director of the Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health, a faculty mentor for HIV Center Postdoctoral Fellows, and the Clinical Director of Behavioral Health for the Northeast Caribbean AIDS Education and Training Center (AETC). He was appointed and served on the Governor’s Ending the AIDS Epidemic (EtE) Task Force which developed a Blueprint to end the HIV Epidemic in NYS; and he currently serve on the NYS AIDS Advisory Council Committee providing guidance for implementation of the Blueprint, which includes specific recommendations for improving the provision of mental health services in NYS for populations vulnerable to HIV acquisition and for people living with HIV. The HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies (at NYSPI) has strong partnerships with both NYSDOH and NYCDOHMH, implementing and studying “Ending the Epidemic” (EtE) initiatives in NY State; and personnel from both NYC and NYS Health Departments serve as members (faculty) of the Science Cores of the HIV Center.