Psychological distress after testing positive for human papillomavirus (HPV) at cervical cancer screening is well documented in the general population. However, little is known about the impact of an HPV-positive result on those with pre-existing mental health conditions, who may be at higher risk of experiencing clinically significant distress. This study explored the psychosocial impact of HPV in women with co-morbid mental health conditions, as well as their experience of cervical screening during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with 22 women aged 27–54 who had tested positive for HPV at routine cervical screening in England, and who reported having at least one mental health condition. Data were analysed using thematic analysis.
Being informed of an HPV-positive result increased distress and heightened pre-existing psychological challenges. Psychosocial response and duration of HPV-related distress appeared to be influenced by the ability to regulate emotions, number of consecutive HPV-positive results, interactions with health care professionals, and other life stressors. The experience added further complexity to many women’s perceptions of self and self-esteem. Women who had received psychological treatment for their mental health condition were best able to self-manage HPV-related distress by applying learned coping skills.
Receiving an HPV-positive result at cervical screening appears to be a distressing experience for women with co-morbid mental health conditions. Future hypothesis-driven research is needed to confirm findings and develop effective interventions to reduce psychosocial burden.