Mental health help for those on the frontlines of COVID-19

Jul 16, 2020

An APR news feature

The coronavirus pandemic continues to take a toll on Alabama. The COVID-19 caseload has increased by 30 percent over the past two weeks. The state is slowly returning to normal, but healthcare professionals are encouraging everyone to wear masks, use social distancing, and avoid crowded places like restaurants and bars. The pandemic has taken a toll on mental health as well. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study shows close to half of all adults in the U.S. are worried or stressed over COVID-19. 

“We tend to be there and they’re looking for us to help the situation in some way,” said Terry Jacobs, a battalion chief at Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue. “So that’s a great deal of stress by itself. When you throw the pandemic in, it just highlighted some of the stress.”

Jacobs' job includes responding to accidents and illnesses. Many of these emergency calls involve COVID-19. That means trauma for the victims, but also stress for the firefighters. This situation prompted the University Medical Center at the University of Alabama to offer free mental health services for first responders. Dr. Martha Crowther is heading up the program. She said the challenge for front line people like Jacobs is tackling two major issues at once.

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“What’s happening is that our healthcare workers and first responders are no longer doing just the other components of the job,” Crowther said. “But they’re having to kind of really target or focus in on COVID-related issues, and they still have other components of the job.” 

And the recent unrest related to the death of George Floyd means can create even more stress.

“It takes great professionalism and great strength of character just to walk out the door sometimes in the Deep South,” said Rebecca Allen, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama. “And to not only do that but also act as a healthcare hero is really quite something.”

The psychological risks associated with these front line jobs often makes a trip to a mental health professional necessary. However, Crowther said getting first responders to seek help is often the sticking point.

“Often, our first responders and healthcare professionals just don’t have a lot of time,” Crowther said. “So the idea that they want to sign up for long-term therapy or take a deep dive into, I don’t know, some people think if you work with a mental health professional, you have to start with their childhood. That’s not what this is about.”

The notion of a firefighter asking for mental health counseling was once considered a sign of weakness. However, Jacobs said this stigma has become less of an issue in recent years.

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“It’s a 180° difference than it was back then,” he said. “Back then, it was like, you know, ‘suck it up, buttercup, you’re gonna be dealing with this, you just need to toughen up and deal with it.’ And now, it’s a kinder, gentler profession, I would say.”

The University Medical Center also offers this brand of mental health treatment for doctors and nurses as well as firefighters. In addition, Crowther said that care comes in the form of wellness checks and team gatherings.

“We will continue in our interprofessional team to have wellness checks and team meetings and the ability to, in a safe environment, talk about our work and about how our healthcare team is doing,” she said.

The University Medical Center’s initiative has seen some success. However, Crowther argues more needs to be done to fully address the mental health needs of these workers.

“I think it’s wonderful, and I’ve heard good feedback that we’re offering the services,” Crowther said. "I don’t think they’re being taken advantage of as much as they probably should be just given the stigma associated with mental health.”

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Jacobs praised the free mental health services offered by the University Medical Center. Although he does not currently know if any coworkers have used these services, he anticipates they will get plenty of mileage out of this opportunity.

“I’m sure in the future that it will be taken advantage of, and that’s wonderful,” he said.