Hotline Counselor Provides First-line HIV Support in Ethiopia

The best part of being a Talkline counselor is being able to provide quality counseling to clients who are facing difficult situations and helping these people make informed decisions about HIV testing and treatment. I feel so satisfied when I am able to educate a client and they thank us for our life saving service.”
-Seble Hedgo, Ethiopia Talkline counselor since October 2009

Saving lives is just one of the many goals of “952”, the HIV/AIDS Talkline run by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Communication Programs’ (JHU∙CCP) AIDS Resource Center (ARC). Established in September 2004, the Talkline serves both HIV negative and positive individuals across Ethiopia. It helps HIV negative individuals retain their status by refraining from risky behavior, while promoting positive living to HIV positive individuals by improving their quality of life and providing counseling and referrals as needed.

Talkline counselors like Hedgo offer critical, frontline support to the approximately 5,000 callers who dial 952 everyday. The 66 counselors, 43 of whom are female, are trained in telephone counseling skills and the basics of HIV/AIDS. They participate in intensive group work and role plays on telephone counseling so that they master the necessary knowledge and communication skills and can offer the consistent, quality service that has become synonymous with the Talkline.

On International Women’s Day, March 8th, Hedgo proudly recognizes the benefits she and the other female counselors receive while working on the Talkline. She says that, as a woman, her experience as a counselor has helped her develop self confidence and assertiveness; it has given her an opportunity to share her knowledge and skills; and it has enabled her to become economically independent.

As first responders, it is not uncommon for Talkline counselors to be called by individuals in crisis, often reaching out for help for the first time. Hedgo remembers an HIV-positive male caller who was contemplating suicide. His wife had left him when she learned his HIV status, leaving him to care for their two children, one of whom also tested positive for HIV.

A seasoned Talkline counselor, Hedgo wasn’t put off by the gravity of the call. She describes alternating between probing the caller to better understand his situation, and stepping back to assess his feelings, while giving him space to work through his emotions.

The turning point in the call for both Hedgo and the caller came when she realized that the man, who had known his status for two years, had yet to see a doctor. Finding that the caller held many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, she immediately switched her therapist hat for that of an educator.

“It was evident that some basic education was necessary, so I addressed the issues of ART, CD4 count, and other positive living measures in a manner that could be understood by the client,” she says.

The caller felt empowered when he understood that, with treatment, his life could continue, that he could go back to work and raise his children successfully.

And for Hedgo, the real reward came when the man called back two weeks later to say he had seen a doctor and started taking HIV medication. He also hired someone to assist him with running his household, returned to work and began ART for his HIV positive child.

Furthermore, in response to Hedgo’s questions about his current emotional state, the caller responded that he was very happy to restart his life and that he credited the counseling and advice he’d received from the Talkline for his newfound hope of surviving. The caller urged Hedgo to continue her work and reach out to all people who are affected by HIV.

Thanks to their vast HIV/AIDS knowledge and unparalleled communication skills, Hedgo and her fellow Talkline counselors are the most trusted source of accurate HIV/AIDS information and quality counseling service in Ethiopia. And lives have been saved thanks to their efforts.

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