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Mental Health Support For Frontline Workers, From The ER To The Grocery Store

“Thank you, frontline and essential workers. You are our heroes.”

On yard signs, over grocery store intercoms and in stump speeches, such sentiments have become a fixture of American culture in 2020. But Dena Tranen, a mental health professional based in Clayton, knows that gratitude alone is insufficient.

“We recognize the toll this is taking on you and the burdens you are carrying,” reads the webpage of a resource Tranen’s organization recently launched. “Our volunteer therapists, social workers and counselors are here to support you.”

And they’re doing it for free. The Care Collective has begun offering no-cost mental health support to frontline workers in the St. Louis region — and “really anyone who is struggling due to the pandemic,” as Tranen says, whether that’s a nurse, a grocery store clerk, a teacher or a parent.

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Amy Bush | Essencia Photography & Washington University
Mental health professional Dena Tranen, left, and emergency physician Dr. Chandra Aubin joined Monday's broadcast.

It’s the kind of community-driven effort that Dr. Chandra Aubin considers more critical than ever. An associate professor in emergency medicine at Washington University, Aubin helped lead mental health support efforts in her own department even before the COVID-19 crisis hit.

She’s reckoned with what she describes as “the tremendous toll” her work as an emergency physician has taken on her mental health over the past 30 years, and she’s eager to bring such issues forward and normalize them.

And like Tranen, Aubin sees a real need for mental health support for all frontline workers during this crisis, not just those in health care.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, both women joined host Sarah Fenske to talk about some of the challenges essential workers face and the resources available for their support.

Tranen said she’s been hearing from “lots of people on the frontlines, from nurses and home health aides to grocery and retail store clerks, as well as food delivery employees.”

“I think people are really experiencing a lot of anxiety and all of the emotionally dysregulating effects that anxiety can have on a person and their relationships at home,” she said. “Many people have a sense of increased irritability, a lower capacity to tolerate things that they normally do. So they’re feeling more tired, having a hard time sleeping. And sometimes we’re hearing a sense of unfairness about having to be out [on the frontlines] during this time.”

Aubin noted that it’s not just doctors and other health care workers who need this support but a whole legion of “unsung heroes.”

“There’s so many people that without them we couldn’t provide care for these people [in the hospital],” Aubin said. “The food service workers, the housekeeping people, the techs, the respiratory therapists, security — a lot of people in the hospital that I feel like don’t [and] didn’t get as much attention and gratitude and support, and so I’m happy that we’re finally recognizing these folks and the stressors that they are undergoing.

“And I will say also that in the emergency department, in the patient population as well … we’re seeing a lot more stress-related complaints, a lot more depression, a lot more thoughts of suicide because of the isolation, and that COVID is certainly additive to any mental health issues that were preexisting.”

Aubin said her department is also seeing increases in drug use and gun violence among patients because of COVID-19 and other social stressors.

“That’s certainly incredibly hard on the people in the emergency department … and that’s kind of the peculiar thing with health care,” Aubin said, “is that we experience other people’s traumas on a daily basis. And over time that in itself gives a baseline level of stress and anxiety. And I would say COVID has certainly been additive of that.”

Tranen, whose sister is a physician, said a conversation with her sister early on in the pandemic is what prompted her to find a way to help through the Care Collective.

“She said to me that she was going to be ‘redeployed’ to an ICU for several weeks,” Tranen recalled. “And that really hit me, that’s military language. And like any other kind of historic moment in time, this was going to bring enduring and persistent stress to many people handling it on the frontlines.”

That — combined with the fact that a lot of mental health clinicians in Tranen’s circle wanted to do more for the community — led to the Care Collective’s initiative. Frontline workers can learn more about accessing mental health support on the organization’s website.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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