Area essential workers, including law enforcement, health care workers and child care providers, now can obtain free mental health resources amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In August, Mental Health/Disability Services of the East Central Region started offering five free mental health sessions to area educators in an effort to support brain health, but it soon realized others in the region might need the same services, said Carrie Merrick, Hillcrest Family Services vice president of behavioral health.

"We just know that these workers are strained with the pandemic and taking on more stress and burden than ever before," she said.

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The program offers three mental wellness coaching sessions and two counseling sessions to essential workers such as law enforcement, first responders, child care providers and long-term-care givers, said regional CEO Mae Hingtgen said. The East Central Region encompasses nine counties, including Delaware, Dubuque and Jones counties.

Merrick said Abbe Mental Health Center in Cedar Rapids will offer the services until Dec. 30.

Sessions are free thanks to about $220,000 in funds from the federal CARES Act, Hingtgen said.

Although some essential workers already receive free counseling services, Merrick said some workers might be more apt to seek services not covered by their employer's health plan.

“Some people do worry about confidentiality," she said. "We do not report back to their employers. That might encourage them to reach out. This is free. It can be done over telehealth or a phone call, or they can come in-person. It is a great opportunity to support our workers.”

Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy said the sheriff's department does not offer free mental health services to employees but some deputies are trained to provide confidential peer support.

Kennedy said he hopes the free services are another tool deputies can use to cope with all of the added stresses brought on by the pandemic.

"We are one of the occupations that wasn’t shut down," he said. "We obviously were very excited about (the free offerings) and happy to pass that to our staff.”