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Amid growing concerns about the mental health impact of working the frontlines of the pandemic, clinical psychologist Stephanie Zerwas, PhD is finding a way to help.
Zerwas knew therapists in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wanted to give back during the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s really hard to see what people are going through and not be able to do anything,” Zerwas told MedPage Today. “There were a lot of therapists who knew that they could sort of cushion the fall of this.”
It was evident that one community needed strong mental health support, and quickly: healthcare workers on the front lines.
Zerwas, who runs a private practice in Chapel Hill, began organizing local therapists to aid the University of North Carolina’s physician mental health program. But as the number of volunteers grew, Zerwas decided to create her own initiative to provide accessible mental healthcare to a wider scope of front-liners.
She named it Project Parachute, and what started as a local movement in North Carolina now has more than 500 volunteer therapists in 37 states, all offering pro bono therapy sessions to front-line health workers — including physicians, nurses, custodial staff, management, and others.
“We have this really intense cognitive load right now, where we’re trying to make the very best decisions we can with all the information that’s being thrown at us,” Zerwas said. She started Project Parachute “to give people the support that they need at the right time.”
Here’s how it works: on the program’s website, volunteer therapists can input their specialty, availability, and how many clients they can take on. When a healthcare worker browses the site, they can search for sessions based on time preference or a therapist’s specialty. They’re not locked in to typical, hour-long sessions. Zerwas said that the project aims to provide flexible support, whether it’s a 30-minute check-in or a text.
Because mental health providers are not licensed to practice across state lines, clients must choose a therapist within their state. The majority of available therapists are located in North Carolina, Zerwas noted.
Project Parachute partnered with Eleos Health, a mental health care technology startup that provided a digital platform to match therapists with healthcare workers at a national level. The firm’s chief clinical officer, Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit, PhD, said the organization is lucky to have the opportunity to make a positive impact. She added that she is proud of the generosity and adaptability of mental health providers.
“Since the outbreak of the pandemic of COVID, clinicians have needed to change the methods in which they practice very quickly,” Sadeh-Sharvit said. “People were able to do so because there was no alternative.”
She said that the company is prepared to provide long-term pro bono services. “There isn’t an end date at the moment,” she said.
Healthcare workers face new and significant challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurring concerns about the long-term impact on their mental health. Jessica Gold, MD, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, said that healthcare workers already experienced high amounts of stress before the crisis.
“At baseline, being a healthcare worker has emotional strain and burnout,” Gold said in an interview with MedPage Today. The healthcare worker population is already at risk of higher rates of depression, substance use, burnout, and suicide; a pandemic adds stressors like an increased risk of infection, lack of protective equipment, isolation from family and social support networks, and fear of death, she noted.
Early research has shown that the COVID-19 crisis has impacted mental health outcomes of medical workers. A study of more than 1,300 healthcare workers in China found that around half of the participants experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Kaz Nelson, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said that while healthcare providers are among a very resilient workforce, this crisis deprives front-liners of basic needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy.
“We are being pulled into this state where our basic safety needs are threatened,” Nelson told MedPage Today in an interview. “We’re just not equipped to [deal] with that on a day-to-day basis.”
Nelson said that barriers to accessing mental healthcare, such as time and cost, can be removed by programs that are free, confidential, and focused on providing support and skill development.
Gold said that by offering free mental health support to frontliners during the crisis, Project Parachute intervenes at a time when long-term mental health impacts can be prevented.
“We often don’t know what we need when we need it,” Gold said. “If it’s offered, they’re more likely to take it. If they start now they’re more likely to continue.”
By Amanda D’Ambrosio, Staff Writer, MedPage Today
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