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Maintaining Mental Health Is Essential

We must prioritize essential non-medical workers’ mental health in the pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, not all of us had the luxury of watching from home while frantic shoppers battled each other for toilet paper. Unfortunately, a substantial portion of the population, essential non-medical workers, have been forced to be regularly exposed to the virus and the emotional distress that is inherent in being on the front lines of any crisis.

While people around the world are reeling from the fear and human loss that are characteristic of this pandemic, essential non-medical workers have to cope with this fear and loss while working in unsafe and anxiety-provoking conditions.

As such, we must prioritize the mental health of these essential workers by advocating for them, increasing their access to psychological resources, and when making policy-level pandemic-related decisions.

On March 28th, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) published an advisory list identifying occupational categories that were identified as the “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce,” but they encouraged the list to be used as a guide that could be adjusted depending on the specific needs of an area. As a result, the definitions of essential workers and non-essential workers have largely varied by state, territory, and tribe. It is important to recognize that the designation “essential worker” is not a one-size-fits-all term; the experience of manufacturing and retail workers on the one hand and medical workers, on the other hand, have all been drastically different.

Whereas essential medical workers have received various state and nation-wide accolades, essential non-medical workers (e.g., grocery store workers, delivery drivers, bus drivers), are underappreciated. With the disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities, essential non-medical workers not only receive less recognition and support but also less pay and often live paycheck to paycheck.

For the past few months, these remarkable and courageous individuals have kept our country functioning while risking their own health and safety. They have worked extended hours, often with insufficient protective gear or in environments lacking adequate safety standards. Many have been separated from their families because of the high risk of exposure and infection. These workers are taking on new responsibilities (e.g., crowd control, health-regulation enforcement), in addition to their normal work duties.

Employees holding these positions before the pandemic had no way of knowing that they would be working under these harsh conditions. As such, they were most likely not sufficiently trained to deal with the influx of fearful and needy people, the chaos of a new world order, and the demand for their self-sacrifice. Importantly, these “heroes” did not choose to put on a superhero cape, as their jobs typically involve much less risk. Due to these factors and more, non-medical essential workers are now at a substantially increased risk for mental health difficulties.

We must actively and immediately take measures to ensure the psychological well-being of our essential non-medical workers in the United States, as they keep our country functioning during the crisis. Maintaining the mental health of those on the front lines is essential for their well-being and our country’s ability to recover from the pandemic. While we do not yet have a way of stopping the virus, we do have ways of slowing it and of easing its long-term negative impact on non-medical essential workers. To these ends, we offer a series of recommendations.

Recommendations for the General Public

  • Donate money to increase essential non-medical workers’ access to mental health services.
  • Wear a mask, wash your hands, and comply with social distancing guidelines.
  • Stay home except for essential errands and outdoor leisure activities that can be done at a distance.
  • Advocate for the safety of non-medical essential workers—if you see safety hazards, speak with a manager or report them to the proper compliance board.
  • Contact your state and federal legislators requesting policy change related to behavioral health services and other protections for essential non-medical workers.

Recommendations for Essential Non-Medical Workers

  • Seek therapy if you are struggling with your mental health. (You can check Psychology Today’s directory of therapists for a professional near you.)
  • Seek in-person social support from individuals in your household or virtual social support from other friends and family.
  • Make every attempt to prioritize sleep, exercise, and nutrition—your mental health depends on it.
  • Implement healthy coping strategies.
  • Use assertive communication when you feel unsafe at work—state your safety concern, express your opinions about the safety concern, ask for a concrete change to increase your safety, and describe the benefits of your requested change.

Recommendations for Behavioral Health Professionals

  • Offer pro bono sessions or sliding scale rates to essential workers.
  • Conduct research on the impact of COVID-19 on essential non-medical workers’ mental health as there is currently a dearth of research in this area.
  • Stay up to date on research and best clinical practices related to COVID-19 and mental health.—the American Psychological Association has a webpage with information and resources.

Recommendations for Policy Makers

  • Protect essential non-medical workers who speak up and ensure their safety.
  • Extend unemployment benefits to those who are deemed essential but who have a physical health condition that puts them at high risk for COVID-19 complications or a mental health condition that makes it difficult to work.
  • Raise the minimum wage for non-medical essential workers or mandate additional hazard pay during crises such as a pandemic.
  • Provide employees with paid sick leave and increase the amount of paid sick leave during crises such as a pandemic—paid sick leave should cover both physical and mental health conditions.
  • Follow CDC guidelines to avoid premature reopening of businesses or reopening of businesses without proper safety measures in place.
  • Require employers to provide health insurance, that includes behavioral health coverage, to non-medical essential workers or provide government subsidies for health insurance that is not linked to an employer.

By Adelaide La Torre, Sarah Alonzi, and Madison W. Silverstein, Ph.D. on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates.