George Mason University Center for Psychological Services offers free mental health support to essential workers

by Anne Reynolds

George Mason University Center for Psychological Services offers free mental health support to essential workers

The George Mason University Center for Psychological Services has long been a resource for maintaining the mental health of the community around Fairfax and all of NoVA, and last week it instituted a program that will have a great impact on one vital segment of that community. The center has established a COVID-19 Essential Workers Emotional Support Line, a telephone line that offers a space where those affected most by COVID-19 can speak to a trained provider about stress, anxiety, depression, or grief – for free.

“The phone line is anonymous and confidential,” explained Robyn Mehlenbeck, director of the center. “People call, and they can get mental health support from a trained provider. And then if we find that somebody - thinking about nurses, respiratory therapists, healthcare providers in particular but it could be other folks, too - is reporting traumatic stress due to their experiences on the front line we offer specific trauma therapy.”

Mehlenbeck stressed that the support line is available for all essential workers, beyond those in the health care field. “It is really trying to find a way that we could provide some support that is accessible to all essential workers – teachers, restaurant workers, grocery store workers. Lots and lots of people could qualify.”

The project is supervised by Dr. Jenna Calton, an alumna of Mason’s doctoral psychology program. She works closely with Kara Hokes, a PhD student in the clinical psychology program and the graduate program coordinator of the help line.

“I came alongside because I have a lot of experience in help lines and training volunteers for help lines,” said Hokes. “I was really attracted to the program because of that. We were able to pick out some evidence-based-training and also create some tailored training specifically to our program and sort of combine those two together. We were amazed by the flood of passionate undergraduates who wanted to volunteer and have a positive impact on their community.”

The help line is staffed largely by Mason undergraduate psychology student volunteers, which is in keeping with the center’s goals, said Mehlenbeck. “The overall mission of our center is serving as the primary training clinic for doctoral students in clinical psychology, and students in other areas of psychology as well. In addition to training, our mission is to also provide affordable, state of the art, accessible, and equitable care to anyone in the community.”

The students providing the support line assistance do so under the supervision of a licensed provider. They receive over thirty hours of training in emotional support and coping skills, in addition to learning how to spot larger concerns and assist callers in obtaining help. “The volunteers have to know with how to help a suicidal caller, for example, or what to do if someone mentions child abuse, or discloses that they are experiencing intimate partner violence,“ said Hokes.

Regular check-ins with the volunteers are part of the program, added Mehlenbeck. “Almost every meeting, almost every class, these particular weekly trainings and supervisions, we really start with: ‘Okay, how is everybody doing? What’s been the most difficult this week?’ And we’re making sure that people don’t just say, ‘Fine,’ because we know that everybody is not fine. Everybody gets a chance to take a few minutes to talk about what’s been the hardest but also what they’ve done to take care of themselves. So that way, people share ideas, too.”

“It’s giving the students opportunities to provide clinical care, which has been a valuable experience for them because that’s pretty rare to get at the undergraduate level,” said Hokes.

The Essential Workers Emotional Support Line is a resource to offer emotional health support, not financial support. However, the GMU Center for Psychological Services is one of only a few mental health providers that offers services on a sliding scale of fees. “Anyone in the community is eligible for reduced-fee, sliding-scale fee services,” said Mehlenbeck. “With COVID, we’ve gone as low as five dollars for a therapy session. It’s that commitment to the community, and really making sure that we’re reaching people who couldn’t otherwise access services – it’s just such a strong part of our mission.”

“My definition of success is that the phone line gets utilized regularly, so that we’re able to reach more of the community,” she continued.

Hoke agreed: “We know that anxiety, stress, and depression has risen significantly for all community members during COVID. Our goal is to provide emotional support to the community and connect them to services. Our essential workers are on the front line of the pandemic and our hope is that we can provide support at a time when it is needed.”