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Researchers work to help COVID-19 responders in mental distress

Posted at 1:45 PM, Sep 09, 2020

TAMPA BAY, Fla. -- Researchers are working to develop and test a tool to help COVID-19 responders in mental distress.

The project was one of 14 at the University of South Florida to receive funding.

“The key idea is developing this thing that will interact between people in need and all the resources that exist, it will be that go-between,” said assistant professor Jerome Galea.

The researchers said they plan to create a prototype of a chatbot to help break down barriers to access to mental health care. Through things like text or social media messaging, the Tampa Bay Area Treatment & Health Advisor (TABATHA), will help screen the level of mental distress in responders and their service preferences.

“This chatbot will integrate screening and basically referral into one product. And why that’s so important is people are going to be at different levels in terms of stigma surrounding care-seeking and also their readiness to engage with care,” said assistant professor Kristin Kosyluk.

They’re partnering with other community organizations, including the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

“We know first responders. They’re the first out the door but they’re the last to ask for help,” said the center’s CEO and president, Clara Reynolds.

Reynolds said in the past six months, the center has handled more than 9,000 calls related to COVID-19, though received fewer calls from first responders than expected.

“We know this is just gonna be the tip of the iceberg that that behavioral health tsunami is coming from multiple areas,” Reynolds said. “If a device like a chatbot can be developed and proved to be effective to help those at least be able to start to navigate the behavioral health system I just think it’s gonna be an amazing tool.”

“It’s increasing a lot of the frustrations people are having with limitations on PPE and limitations on people congregating and everything else. They’re not able to have those fun events outside of work, where they can release and let that stress go. And everything compounds daily because of their call volume increasing because of the pandemic,” said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue training Lt. Rob Neuberger.

He explained the burden is also intensified for peer support team members who have lost some human connection in checking in.

“I think where social distancing has helped with everything with the pandemic, I really like to just call it physical distancing. That way, we don’t have the emotional separation, that way we can lean on each other as human beings and as just people every day,” he said.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue says they’ve worked to implement programs and resources, including tips on dealing with stressors, how to have conversations with family members, and Zoom calls with a doctor.

“One avenue to get help might be different for the next person,” said division chief of training Richard Ganci.

“Ask for the help when you need it,” Ganci said

This story was first reported by Haley Bull at WFTS in Tampa Bay, Florida.