Each day, more and more people showed up, first timers desperate for help. Many were surprised to find themselves unemployed. A few short weeks ago, business was booming. It wasn’t part of the plan, and no one is really quite sure how they’re going to climb out. 

It’s an all too familiar story for Cindy Shafer, the CEO of Network of Community Ministries, a nonprofit that assists families in the Dallas area. At the nonprofit, they provide emergency services, food and clothes, financial assistance, and job resources for people in need. Here lately, since COVID-19 struck, they’ve gone from feeding 200 families to 600, many of whom are first timers desperate for help. 

Though their story is familiar, Shafer and her staff can’t help but be affected by them. Mental health professionals refer to it as “second-hand trauma,” and the Community Ministries’ team were still processing the trauma they experienced after an outbreak of tornadoes struck North Texas in late October and wiped out several businesses and homes. Now, with COVID-19, they’re experiencing it on a much larger scale. 

“It’s stressful and difficult,” Shafer says. “Myself and my team were processing through second-hand trauma from the fall, and when this hit, it was like we can’t go through this again.” 

In the emotional aftermath of the fall tornadoes, Shafer contacted The Counseling Place, a nonprofit mental health agency in Richardson, which had been setting up self care groups for first responders and nonprofit frontline workers. She set up those services for her staff, but then COVID-19 forced those therapy sessions online. It became more difficult for some to attend weekly meetings. Many are doing their best just to address the community’s needs, not to mention their loved ones at home, so their mental health needs often come last.  

To address this mental health need, The Counseling Place has been promoting its “check-in” service for nonprofit frontline workers, 911 operators and first responders. It’s kind of a COVID-19 emotional hotline, a debrief phone call that provides a safe space with a mental health professional on the other end of the line. The call is anonymous to protect the caller. 

“It is very stressful seeing the need and not knowing how we’re going to meet the need,” Shafer says. “When you go home, the need is there, and you’re worried about getting your family sick. There is no safe place to go, and that is why that line is so helpful.” 

The need for the hotline is staggering. Nearly 30 million people have filed for unemployment, surpassing the numbers from the Great Depression. As more people lose their jobs and continued to be forced to remain sheltered at home, The Counseling Place saw an alarming increase in suicide referrals and assaults and domestic violence cases from February to March. 

In 2019 alone, they provided individual and family counseling to more than 500 new clients and victim services to more than 1,600 people. The demand was already exceeding the agency’s capacity to service, The Counseling Place indicated in a press release.

Deborah Dobbs, executive director of The Counseling Place, says her team first noticed another increase in the mental health need, and really saw a demand for it, after the tornadoes hit the Dallas area. The demand was so high that people who were in admin services, she says, were doing direct services. 

They’re finding themselves in a similar situation with COVID-19.  

“[People think that] victim advocates, cops, and nurses are supposed to be some type of heroic warrior who is unaffected by human sufferings,” Dobbs points out, “but it is impossible not to be impacted by people who are suffering from something extraordinary like a tornado.” Or COVID-19. 

Since the demand on first responders and nonprofit frontline workers are so high, Dobbs and her team decided to set up the support hotline, which is first initiated by a text. It gives them a chance to vent their frustrations if needed and review a mental health strategy in a 15 minute call. “We have someone trained with mental health, someone who will not judge you or gasp when you give an honest answer,” Dobbs says. 

Dobbs says it was important for them to allow anonymity for the caller, especially for law enforcement and medical professionals who still face a stigma attached to mental health services in their respective fields. 

In fact, The Counseling Place’s first caller called under the pseudonym of Bruce Wayne. But she isn’t sure if he or she was with law enforcement. Dobbs’ team first initiated the check-in service with a local police department, or actually a small unit within the local force, but Dobbs says there weren’t a lot of takers. So they expanded it to the medical community in Richardson but had more of a response when they began offering it to nonprofit frontline workers like Shafer and her team. 

“It’s not therapy, and there is no paperwork,” she reiterates. “It’s just another way to connect with a human who is trained in mental health.”  

To learn more or to donate, visit counselingplace.org

Christian McPhate

Christian McPhate is the managing editor of Local Profile. He has been working as a journalist for more than a decade. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Dallas Morning News,...