The Social Perspective: Peer Counseling in Demand
By DAVID O’NEILL
Peace Corps Response South Africa, 2012
Peace Corps Sierra Leone, 1989–1991
Imagine that many people around you are becoming terribly ill and dying in a matter of weeks or months. You are not sure what to call the illness you are seeing and hearing about, and do not know what to make of the sudden deaths that are occurring around you. Your social structure is changing and your outlook for the future is filled with an unknown but certain vulnerability. You question death and life as it changes around you. You are not alone, but it can sometimes feel that way.
The AIDS epidemic struck dramatically in many places around the world in the 1980s. Initially, it was thought of as a sub-cultural gay cancer or exotic African disease; it did not get the mainstream institutional attention it warranted until people who learned about it first-hand stepped up to use their knowledge to help form a productive direction for governments, medical institutions, social organizations and individuals. In the process, leaders were not perfect and they made mistakes, and medical trials had both successes and tragic failures. But the will to control this new disease prevailed and funds were hard fought to support research, education campaigns, and treatments. Leaders in science, medicine, politics, and social and gay groups made the difference in the fight against the epidemic because they were the group that validated cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade’s words: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
But what has evolved since those initial efforts? My Peace Corps Response Volunteer experience in 2012 in South Africa as an Organizational Development Specialist for a community-based organization that coordinated, trained and paid home-healthcare workers who took care of AIDS patients introduced me to some interesting observations: Adults generally know what AIDS is and how it spreads. Education campaigns are regularly in progress delivering information via billboards, radio, television, community organizations, churches and schools. People are introduced to the subject and not merely subjected to it. Reliable testing is widely available and encouraged. Public assistance is often, but not always available for treatment.
The Organizational Development Specialist position description that was created for my Peace Corps Response assignment included assisting a community-based organization to strengthen its strategic planning, human resource development, proposal writing and to collaborate in the creation of training materials. The organization also asked that I develop training materials on peer counseling. From that experience, I learned how the value of peer counseling changed significantly between 1985 and 2012: AIDS became socially familiar though not always socially accepted and new social and professional roles were developed to help achieve stability in the face of the AIDS pandemic.
Peer counseling is successfully taking root in many public health campaign programs in South Africa. Peer counselors are being trained to implement an effective social learning infrastructure. Social learning is the key to spreading the word about AIDS as it is based on the principle that you probably listen to your friends or people you respect on the subjects that matter most to you. In the case of the South African environment, with an AIDS pandemic that cites 1 out of 3 adults as HIV+ today, peer counselors are critical people in any community because they are "everyday people" who want to help. Like rural home healthcare workers, peer counselors frequently have not completed secondary school and have only basic, non-formal adult education training.
The Peace Corps approach to helping other nations through peer counseling not only addresses the need to increase skilled manpower, but also focuses on the social learning that is so powerful between people of different nations. To learn from one another’s perspectives is kindred to the nature of peer counseling. Social learning is one of the many initiatives Peace Corps does very well, and my PCR assignment redefined the importance of that approach in 2012 in the AIDS pandemic environment of South Africa.
Last updated Apr 29 2013