When a frustrated mother, whose elementary schooler was refusing to do his homework, called the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD’s COVID-19 Support Line on April 27, the responder quickly deduced the child was acting out because he missed his teacher. By the end of the call, they’d come up with a plan to help reconnect students and teacher via a short, one-on-one video chat. During a different call to the hotline the very next day, a support line responder gave an 87 year old a crash course in how to operate FaceTime.

These are just a few of the many calls Harris Center staff have answered since the free, 24-hour hotline went statewide on March 31. Established at the request of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office, the Harris Center’s COVID-19 Support Line was specifically intended for Harris County residents when it launched on March 17 using the same model as the center’s successful crisis line. At the behest of the Texas’s deputy commissioner for mental health, the support line began fielding calls statewide just a few weeks later.

This new resource has proved vital as Texas Health and Human Services’ mental health resources page saw an almost 400-percent increase in web traffic last month.

“The act of truly being heard is very powerful,” says Jennifer Battle, Harris Center’s director of access, who runs the organization’s crisis, access, and COVID-19 support lines. “During this particular time, when many people are both physically and emotionally isolated, talking to someone can help provide a sense of being grounded and connected, which is key to mental health.”

Support vs. Crisis

Harris Center’s COVID-19 Support Line, which is being funded by THHS, differs from its crisis line in a key way. The crisis line, which has been operational for more than a decade and receives about 130,000 calls a year, assists people in acute, immediate distress, including those experiencing thoughts of suicide and self-harm, Harris Center CEO Wayne Young says. “There’s an urgency to it and immediacy to it,” he explains. “We’re working on crisis resolution around that idea of what’s going to happen between now and tomorrow.”

On the other hand, the support line focuses on psychological first aid, an approach designed to reduce the initial stress caused by traumatic events. In addition to fostering a compassionate environment that allows callers to openly share their fears and concerns, responders teach callers grounding exercises, anxiety reduction techniques, and coping strategies to help them through their current challenges. Those calling the hotline “don't feel like something bad is going to happen if they don't talk to somebody now,” Young says. “They just need that support, and contact, and connectedness. It’s a lot of empathetic listening and supportive counseling.”

Ring, Ring, Ring

Responders, all of whom are trained mental health professionals, have talked to workers who feel unsafe on the job as the state reopens and individuals who have lost their jobs or faced furloughs. High school students have called in worrying about upcoming AP exams and their future college prospects. Senior citizens have reached out because they feel isolated inside their assisted living facilities, while adult children have called in, worrying about their elderly parents; other callers are struggling to grieve knowing they can’t travel to a loved one’s funeral.

One stay-at-home mom, whose husband, the sole provider of their family, was in the hospital with the coronavirus, had just tested positive for the virus. “She was not symptomatic, but was terrified—she was scared about the income, she was scared about what happens to the child if she gets sick,” Battle says. “There’s no answer to that. It’s really just letting her have a space to talk about those fears.”  

The first week the support line was active, the Harris Center received up to 180 calls a day. Now, they answer between 40 and 60, though Battle says she expects the number of calls to increase as cases spike throughout the state. Overall, callers hang up feeling calmer and more in control after having their fears acknowledged and being allowed a safe space to process their emotions. “We have many calls that end with the caller saying ‘I can’t believe you answered the phone,’” Battle says.

Just a First Step

The success of the COVID-19 Support Line has led the Harris Center to launch a new program: virtual support groups for frontline workers in both healthcare and other professions, which just went statewide last week. Young says the Harris Center has also received a grant that will enable the organization to hire crisis outreach workers to support particularly vulnerable populations in the area.

As with many things surrounding the novel coronavirus, the full scope of its effect on the country’s mental health is still unknown. But, Battle says, it’s important to frame every conversation about how we move forward in regard to mental health with a tone of hope.

“Yes, your mental health is going to be impacted by this ongoing, stretched-out crisis, but we have the services in our community for you. This is what we’re here for. This is what we’re made for.”

Reach the COVID-19 24/7 Support Line at 833-986-1919 and learn more at theharriscenter.org.
Reach the 24-Hour Crisis Line at 1-866-970-4770.

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