Essential workers pressured by mental health issues

Meghan McCarty Carino Aug 14, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
A pharmacist working in protective gear. A CDC report shows that mental health issues are plaguing many essential workers. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Essential workers pressured by mental health issues

Meghan McCarty Carino Aug 14, 2020
A pharmacist working in protective gear. A CDC report shows that mental health issues are plaguing many essential workers. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The pandemic is a crisis in this country on so many fronts: unprecedented health risks, economic collapse and — now it’s clear — mental health challenges. A new report from the CDC shows Americans are increasingly suffering symptoms of anxiety and depression, turning to substance use and even contemplating suicide at higher rates.

One group that has been particularly hard hit is essential workers.

Ashli Hinds works not one, but two essential jobs in Fort Worth, Texas. She’s a package handler for a shipping company and does on-site tech support for an aerospace firm. But last Monday, she just needed a break.

“It was just one of those days,” she said. “I was able to tell my boss, you know, ‘Hey, I want to take a mental health day.’ “

She worries about her own health — as a Black woman with diabetes, she’s particularly at risk. And because she works outside the home, she doesn’t want to endanger her friends or family, so she’s usually alone.

“It is depression. It’s like a monkey on my back,” Hinds said. “Like I have nowhere to go, nobody to go see — and that’s the hard part.”

According to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of essential workers have experienced mental health issues in recent months. That’s 25% more than the general population. More than a fifth have contemplated suicide.

Many low-wage service jobs have become less secure. Kiara Iverson has seen her hours cut at a big-box store outside Milwaukee.

“It is a bit scary because, you know, my relatives are older. We don’t have enough money in our pockets to deal with all of that,” she said.  

Jobs in health care, while always stressful, have become even more traumatic during the pandemic, according to Dr. James Rachal, a psychiatrist with Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Especially early on in the disease process, there was very little we could do. So it was very disempowering for a lot of health care workers that typically have some solution or some cure at their fingertips,” he said. “Sometimes it was colleagues they were seeing that were getting sick.”

Ironically, Rachal said getting help for mental health issues often hasn’t been accepted or prioritized in the field.

Many essential service workers have limited resources for help. Sarah Norton heads a Twin Cities nonprofit that offers counseling services to restaurant workers.

“I mean, the industry itself was lacking a safety net prior to this,” she said.

Norton said she’s seen a 75% increase in calls to their crisis hotline since the pandemic began.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, anxiety or depression, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Here’s how to find help outside the U.S.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are people still waiting for unemployment payments?

Yes. There is no way to know exactly how many people have been waiting for months and are still not getting unemployment, because states do not have a good system in place for tracking that kind of data, according to Andrew Stettner of The Century Foundation. But by his own calculations, only about 60% of people who have applied for benefits are currently receiving them. That means there are millions still waiting. Read more here on what they are doing about it.

Are we going to see another wave of grocery store shortages?

Well, public health officials are warning that we could see a second wave of the virus before the end of the year. And this time retailers want to be prepared if there’s high demand for certain products. But they can’t rely totally on predictive modeling. People’s shopping habits have ebbed and flowed depending on the state of COVID-19 cases or lockdowns. So, grocers are going to have to trust their guts.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out Tuesday from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

Read More


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