New UTHealth program offers telemedicine mental health care to first responders at no cost

A new program offers first responders evidence-based mental health counseling via telemedicine from behavioral health specialists with the Trauma and Resilience Center at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). 

Weekly counseling through the UTHealth Trauma and Resilience Center’s First Responder Mental Health Treatment Program is funded by the Texas Office of the Attorney General’s Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which recently expanded its federally funded crime victim programs to also serve first responders. First responders include law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and emergency department workers – many of whom have been serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When everyone else runs away from a situation, first responders have to run toward it,” said Ron Acierno, PhD, professor and vice chair for veteran affairs in the Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and executive director of the UTHealth Trauma and Resilience Center. “The Office of the Attorney General put out a call for mental health services for first responders, and we were one of two or three organizations selected to serve their mental health needs.”

The program provides one hour of counseling a week for 8 to 15 weeks via telemedicine appointments. Specialists provide services for a range of mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, general anxiety, depression, marital problems, and sleep problems.

“Telemedicine allows us to meet patients where they are, and tailor our services to suit this population. First responders are often intense and action-oriented, and so is our program. We provide weekly, evidence-based treatment that is problem-focused,” Acierno said. 

Another UTHealth program for first responders, the Heroes Helpline, also allows first responders to find help for substance use disorder through a 24/7 hotline. The toll-free helpline, 1-833-EMS-INTX (1-833-367-4689) is part of a clinical research program led by James Langabeer, PhD, EdD, MBA, and funded in part by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Both Acierno and Langabeer said the collaboration between their teams is critical. 

“The Heroes Helpline offers immediate care at all hours, while our counseling is more of a long-term commitment over two to three months,” Acierno said. “A lot of times people don’t want that commitment right off the bat, but calling the helpline gets them thinking about what they might need long-term. The helpline team has made several referrals to our program recently and we’re grateful for the special collaboration to get first responders the comprehensive help they need.” 

“It’s imperative to keep our first responders healthy, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Langabeer, director of The Center for Health Systems Analytics and professor of emergency medicine and biomedical informatics with McGovern Medical School and the School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth. “Through the Heroes Helpline, we are able to triage calls to help meet the needs of first responders, whether they be medical or behavioral, and connect them with the resources they need. Research shows first responders tend to be more reluctant to seek help because of stigma or fear, so we’re thrilled to provide an option for them to seek treatment without retribution.” 

The Department of Emergency Medicine worked closely with the Medtronic Foundation to secure funding for recruiting first responders to mental health care services. The grant will go toward hiring people with emergency medical service (EMS) experience to serve as community liaisons with local first responder agencies.

“Our mission is to deliver the highest quality emergency care to everyone and part of that includes supporting our prehospital partners who are so vital and have been dramatically impacted in many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ben Bobrow, MD, chair of Emergency Medicine at McGovern Medical School and the John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Distinguished Chair at the school. “This program is an incredible opportunity to help our valiant EMS partners.”

“We can hang a shingle and say we serve first responders but that doesn’t get people in the door. They need a trusted person from their ranks to tell them about it,” Acierno said. “Dr. Bobrow and his team of emergency medicine physicians understand the need for mental health to sustain physical health.”

To contact the UTHealth Trauma and Resilience Center for weekly counseling for first responders, call 713-486-2630. To reach the toll-free Heroes Helpline for substance abuse disorder, call 1-833-EMS-INTX (1-833-367-4689).

UTHealth also offers free, self-paced, online training targeted toward first responders about mental health and substance abuse.