Free therapy available to COVID-19 pandemic front-line workers

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A Bay Area project aims to provide front-line workers struggling with the trauma of the COVID-19 crisis with free counseling from more than 450 licensed psychotherapists.

Launched in March, the Frontline Workers Counseling Project, or FWCP, stemmed from a recognition of the high stress levels essential workers were set to face as the pandemic worsened, said co-founder and San Francisco psychiatrist Elizabeth Rawson.

Rawson and psychologist Michael Levin created a website connecting therapists who were willing to donate time with workers in need of the service. All together, the project offers about a thousand free clinical hours a week, added Rawson.

Cheri Tsai, a Berkeley therapist recruited by the program, said the lockdown has allowed her more time for pro bono work. She sees a variety of clients through the project, from nonprofit workers providing essential services to LGBTQ+ individuals struggling with familial homophobia exacerbated by quarantine.

“This is an opportunity for all people, of all different backgrounds, especially underserved communities, to access people who normally charge $300 an hour,” said Tsai.

Health care workers are listed first on the organization’s website among those eligible for the service. Health care is a high-stress profession at the best of times, said Gerard Brogan, director of nursing practice at the California Nurses Association, and the current burden on hospitals has led to widespread trauma and burnout.

Brogan cited the hospital industry’s “disdain” for the health of its employees as a major stressor. He spoke about the severe dearth of protective equipment and instances of nurses being forced by their employers to enter rooms with inadequate protective gear.

“What the effect of that (is) on the self-esteem … it’s basically saying, ‘You are dispensable,’ ” Brogan said. “We will clap you, call you a hero, but we’re not going to protect you.”

Most hospitals provide therapy to their employees through employee assistance programs, said Brogan, but the aforementioned conditions have led to a loss of trust in employers, and by extension, those services.

Brogan has instead reached out to independent programs similar to the FWCP to access therapy for his association members, such as the Alameda County crisis counseling services, which is also offering free one-on-one counseling.

Voicing gratitude for such programs, Brogan also expressed hope for continued care.

“It’s when the crisis is over,” Brogan said.

The FWCP addresses this, with therapy for front-line workers being completely free through the amorphously defined “pandemic crisis period,” said Rawson, which could well include the aftermath.

Rawson added that serving front-line workers in the subsequent months differentiates the project from certain others.

“We don’t have a maximum on the number of sessions,” Rawson said. “Workers aren’t going to reach out and get four sessions and then be stuck without resources. This is therapists making a commitment to an ongoing therapeutic relationship.”

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr.

A previous version of this article incorrectly named the Frontline Workers Counseling Project.