Houston to launch COVID-19 mental health support program

Mayor Sylvester Turner announces a new COVID-19 mental health support program on Sept. 29, 2020.

The city is launching a new mental health support program providing resources to people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Houston officials announced Tuesday.

The program — called “Let’s Beat COVID-19: Health Education, and Support Services,” or HESS — launches Thursday, and includes a support hotline, virtual support groups, and other resources, according to the city’s health department.

“There is nothing wrong with seeking mental help,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Until COVID is gone, whatever help you need, there’s nothing wrong with just getting the help you need to get past this day. Emotional, mental, spiritual, the good news is that there are people available to do it.”

People experiencing mental or emotional stress can call 713-999-9442 to reach a mental health professional, according to the city. The hotline is available seven days a week from 1 p.m. To 11 p.m., until at least Dec. 24.

In total, the program will cost $340,326 in federal CARES Act funding, the health department said.

The announcement comes as children return to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While the program is for everyone, Turner said it will particularly focus on families with children who have switched to virtual learning during the pandemic, as well as zip codes with high positivity rates, as well as city staffers.

“As city officials, we have a responsibility for being responsive to the mental health needs of our communities,” Turner said.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who helped secure the CARES Act funding for Houston’s program, said that a return to school would also lead to increased stress among parents and caretakers — an additional stressor that she blamed on conflicting messages from the White House.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration pressured the Centers for Disease Control and prevention to play down risks associated with schools reopening.

“I know parents that are struggling to teach their children from home in between working,” Jackson Lee said. “That is stress.”

Jackson Lee, who helped secure the CARES Act funding, TKTK

“Getting someone mental health help can save a life, can stop a family from being hurt,” Jackson Lee said. “They can get someone to come and help them, and the main thing is they’re not alone.”

Help in Harris County

It isn’t the only mental health service available in the Houston area.

The Harris Center for Mental Health usually deals with serious mental illness for people who don’t have a lot of treatment options.

When COVID-19 arrived in the region, they too set up their own hotline, according to Harris Center CEO Wayne Young.

“Within a couple of days, I got a call from the state, saying ‘we heard what you’re doing, we really like that approach, could you scale that to support a statewide line,'” Young said.

Ten days later, they had converted their local COVID-19 support line to one that supports the needs of people across the entire state, Young said.

Through help from two FEMA grants given to the state and then passed on to the Harris Center, it was able to add an additional counselling service, to which people who call the mental health hotline can be referred.

More than 40 staff members provide crisis counseling services at the Harris Center, and also assist the Houston Police Department on mental health calls.

The Harris Center’s mental support hotline can be reached at 833-986-1919.