Early in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, there were few sources people could turn to for information about a frightening and unnamed disease that was affecting lovers, friends, family members, and colleagues. GMHC filled that void by starting the nation’s first HIV/AIDS Hotline. In 1982, an answering machine in the home of GMHC volunteer Rodger McFarlane received more than 100 calls the first night. Within a year, volunteers responded to more than 50,000 calls to the agency’s Hotline.
Today’s GMHC Hotline still fills the ongoing needs for a source of accurate information on the disease and a safe space to discuss a wide range of concerns around HIV/AIDS. The individuals answering calls and now emails are trained to provide emotional support with compassion and without judgement.
Hundreds have staffed the GMHC Hotline over nearly four decades. Bruce Patterson, now a psychotherapist in private practice, served as director of the Hotline in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He recalled that many calls in those days were about HIV testing. “We took a lot of time with callers,” he said, “since providing peer counseling was key to our work.”
Then and now, in addition to handling requests for information and referrals, Hotline staff understand callers want to talk to someone dedicated to meeting their needs directly.
Today, the Hotline provides information about topics such as HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and sexual health. Callers also ask about resources such as testing, healthcare, benefits, and counseling that are available at GMHC and how to enroll as a client.
Since GMHC closed its facility last March due to COVID-19, the Hotline has not been able to take live calls. Instead, callers are invited to leave a message that is returned by GMHC staff within 24 hours. Over the last year, the Hotline fielded nearly 500 calls.
Lynnette Ford, a 14-year veteran of GMHC, oversees the Hotline as senior vice president of programs and prevention services. As GMHC looks toward reopening later this year, Ford expects the Hotline can resume answering live calls by volunteers supervised by GMHC staff.
In addition to questions about HIV testing and how to access PEP and PreP, many Hotline callers raise issues that still reflect fears and misinformation about HIV transmission. Ford recalled a recent call from a young man who wanted to know if his mother could get HIV from changing his bed linens if he ejaculated on them. “I explained how HIV is and is not transmitted,” she said.
Looking ahead, Ford said GMHC is looking to expand Hotline access through popular Live Chat platforms that are HIPPA compliant.
“As long as there is a need to receive information and emotional support, GMHC will be there to help on the phone or in person,” she said. “The GMHC Hotline has been an accurate source of information on HIV/AIDS for people in New York City and around the country still coping with the impact of the epidemic.”
The GMHC Hotline can be reached at 1-800-243-7692 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org