Social distancing, working from home, and the closure of schools are just a few ways the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live and work. For some, adjusting to a new normal has put a strain on their mental health, causing them to seek help.
To help city employees who might be struggling with their mental health, the City of Houston’s Employee Assistance Program ramped up its mental health outreach to promote mental health awareness, remove stigma, and let employees know how they can get help.
The EAP offers counseling for employees experiencing personal or work related problems. In response to the pandemic, the EAP launched teletherapy to help employees seeking help.
“Our goal is to make it as comfortable as possible for employees” said Annetta Vaughn on how EAP clinicians provide counseling through face-to-face and teletherapy sessions.
Vaughn, who serves as the EAP manager, provides clinical supervision to two senior licensed clinicians and manages the external EAP.
Vaughn and her staff work directly with city departments to provide services to employees.
EAP is a hybrid model with the assessment process beginning at the time of the initial call.
Margaret Nabors, who is the administrative support for the EAP, is responsible for triaging incoming calls to ensure employees receive the type of support that they need.
The primary focus of the internal EAP is work-related concerns, while the external EAP supports individuals and their immediate family with personal concerns. Employees receive six free sessions per situation from both the internal and external EAP.
“These are very challenging times for employees — between working from home, taking care of children, and the fear of contact.” Vaughn said.
While some employees seek out help through EAP, others are turning to their primary care physicians.
“I’m seeing the biggest increase in anxiety from people in all walks of life, but depression and stress have also increased,” said Dr. Shane Magee, who practices internal medicine at Kelsey Seybold’s Vintage Clinic. “Many times, patients previously reluctant to come forward have been spurred on by this pandemic.”
In June, 40% of U.S adults reported struggling with mental health symptoms related to the pandemic, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mental and physical health are both contributing factors in a person’s overall health, with mental issues increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease, according to the CDC.
“I often look for physical symptoms of insomnia or hypersomnia, changes in appetite, and changes in weight,” Magee said of physical symptoms related to mental health issues like depression.
“Self-care is very important.” Vaughn said. “It is important for everyone to stay healthy, both mentally and physically.”
Employees seeking to improve their physical health can do so virtually thanks to fitness and wellness classes along with other resources offered through the city’s Wellness team, which works alongside EAP.
To further help employees, Vaughn and her team implemented Tuesday Talks, a weekly citywide email that includes information about different mental health topics and employee resources.
“The EAP partnered with the mayor and his office to shed light on mental health and what resources are available to City of Houston employees,” Vaughn said.
The kickoff email in November included information about virtual teletherapy and EAP’s 24-hour phone number employees can call for help.
“We make sure what we offer is in line with what the world is experiencing,” Vaughn said of the campaign. “We want the content to be relatable so employees know they are not alone.”
“The EAP will continue to strive to remove the stigma of mental health,” said Vaughn. “A continuous goal for the EAP and the City of Houston is to normalize mental health and make it OK to seek support.”
Vaughn encourages employees who need help to reach out. Magee agrees.
“Seek care early,” he said. “Don’t try to deal with it alone.”