In 1981 the Centers for Disease Control issued a report about five young, healthy gay men in Los Angeles who were diagnosed with a mysterious rare fatal lung infection and compromised immune systems. Soon after, gay men across the nation began reporting similar symptoms and tragically began dying by the thousands. This period marked the beginning of what would come to be known as the AIDS epidemic, a time wrought with fear, trauma, and misinformation. In response, Felton’s San Francisco Suicide Prevention (SFSP) created a hotline called HIV/AIDS Nightline to provide compassionate, emotional support, and information to all who reached out for help. Founded in 1989, Nightline continues its mission of support, as Felton SFSP Director of Programs Van Hedwall LMFT shared, “The Nightline is about talking to someone about fear, prevention, hope and overcoming the stigma and adversity of disabling HIV and AIDS.”
Nightline was created at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to help at-risk San Francisco communities and individuals. The loss of health and deaths of family and loved ones increased mental health issues and suicidal ideation. Nightline provided support to the community at large and those most affected by the disease. The line began operating all hours of the night so that AIDS patients could reach out. Mr. Hedwall explains, “We started HIV Nightline so that we could support people who were up all night and in pain and who were needing someone to talk to, many of whom were in the dying process.” Though not a medical advice line, Nightline focused callers, as it does now, on emotional support and discussion and information regarding HIV transmission, testing, and treatment.
In the forty years since the AIDS epidemic began, lifesaving treatments have made the disease manageable and preventable. Although AIDS initially and disproportionally killed gay men, the disease as we know it today affects all genders, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities. “The face of AIDS has changed over the years,” Mr. Hedwall explains, “and so has the HIV/AIDS Nightline.” He adds, “Nightline represents empathy and care for those who are and were dealing with a very serious illness and possible death.” he goes on to say, “It’s now become more of a resource for information and support.”
Today, Nightline operates nationally, with calls coming in from all over the country. “Most of the people that call us do so for information and emotional support,” he explains. “For example, if somebody tests positive, we provide information about different aspects of testing, of getting a positive diagnosis and explain what that means.” Mr. Hedwall emphasizes that misinformation about the disease still proliferates. “There are many places in the country that still don’t know how AIDS happens, how it’s contracted, how it’s spread.” In addition, many calls come in from what he dubs “the worried well,” those who are at low-risk of contracting the disease but experience OCD-like behaviors in worrying they have contracted it.
Mr. Hedwall remembers when the AIDS epidemic began over forty years ago and its impact on the LGBTQIA+ community. As an AIDS activist at the time, he had many friends die from the disease. Reflecting on the decades since and the life-saving treatments that have changed the trajectory of this fatal disease as well as the HIV/AIDS Nightline, he asserts, “It’s an interesting way to mark the different milestones of HIV/AIDS progression over the years. Nightline is about talking to someone about prevention, hope, and all the things that HIV has come to be at this point.” He adds, “It’s really a wonderful line and I’m so glad that we can contribute to San Francisco as well as the nation.”
Felton Institute responds to the needs of our community by providing innovative, evidence-informed social services to transform lives. Our organization offers 50+ programs that address mental health, the unhoused, early care and education, those impacted by the justice system, transitional age youth, as well as aging adults. Our award-winning programs, which have been recognized as national models, combine the latest scientific research with cultural sensitivity and a deep commitment to supporting and reflecting the communities we serve.
Founded in 1889, Felton is the oldest secular non-profit social services provider in the City and County of San Francisco. We have expanded our services across most Bay Area counties and continue to be at the forefront of pioneering new approaches to meet the emerging needs of underserved populations.
We know what it looks like to successfully build community.
We foster impactful change by strengthening the community as a premiere service provider. We also strengthen other service providers by supporting them in their fiscal, human resources, communications, IT and overall agency operations. With Felton’s support, they are able to focus on providing the best services to their clients, doing the work they were meant to do.
Felton empowers the community and ensures successful outcomes to all we engage with.
Felton Institute is a tax-exempt organization registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit under EIN 94-1156530.