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Group offers free counseling to Tampa Bay health care workers

The Pinellas nonprofit Empath Health says it hopes to address an unprecedented mental health crisis on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.

For years, Empath Health’s Community Counseling Program has offered help for individuals or groups experiencing unexpected grief or trauma.

Now the Pinellas County nonprofit hopes to start addressing what it’s leaders say is one of the largest mental health crises they’ve seen.

Empath Health announced Monday it will offer up to six free, one-hour counseling sessions to any health care worker in the Tampa Bay area. The program is open to anyone in the health care field, from receptionists in doctors offices, to home health aids, to nurses and other professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak. The sessions will be conducted by trauma-informed licensed mental health counselors.

“The trauma of how this is impacting our community, specifically those on the front lines is so vast,” said Dr. Stacy Orloff, vice president for innovation and community health at Empath. “They’re seeing really horrific cases, sometimes at risk to themselves and their own families.”

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The sessions initially will be virtual, using Zoom, FaceTime, Skype or the phone. But once Empath staff members return to their offices, in-person visits will be offered in Pinellas County, though clients are not required to be Pinellas residents.

Empath Health is also offering live discussions on their Facebook page on topics such as techniques for dealing with anxiety or using spirituality to cope. They also offer 15- or 20-minute phone calls with counselors for those who might not want to commit to counseling but seek support.

Health care professionals "tend to be so outward focused,” Orloff said. “We take care of other people. That’s our job. But sometimes it comes to a point where you realize, in order to keep doing that, you have to take care of yourself.”

Empath Health’s Community Counseling Center, which gets funding from the Suncoast Hospice Foundation, is applying for grants to supplement the cost of the counseling service, Orloff said. Though Suncoast Hospice, a member of Empath Health, received funds through federal stimulus money, it is earmarked for specific projects. The mental health counseling project for health care workers is also listed on the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay’s Nonprofit Needs List.

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There is no time limit on seeking help, Orloff said.

"You may not be able to step back and process things emotionally quite yet,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep going. But we understand this is a long-term commitment to our health care professionals, whether it’s today or three months from now.”

To schedule an appointment, health care workers should call (727) 523-3451.