Newswise — The Heroes Helpline has expanded its services to all health care workers in Texas. The confidential helpline, 833-EMS-INTX, was launched in early 2020 by researchers with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth Houston) to help first responders in Texas seeking treatment for substance use and mental health concerns.

The clinical research program, which was initially offered to any active or retired first responder, including law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians, came at a time when first responders were serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We launched this program when the pandemic had just taken off,” said Karima Lalani, PhD, assistant professor at UTHealth Houston School of Biomedical Informatics and part of the team that oversees the Heroes Helpline. “Here we are, almost two years in, and we understand there has been an increase of mental burden on the health care workforce. We want to be able to offer services to those who need it the most.”

Studies show the pandemic has affected front-line workers’ physical and psychological health, causing them to experience emotional distress such as fear, anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout.

Most recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. exceeded 100,000 for the first time over a 12-month period, with cases of opioid use driving the increase.

“The pandemic has unfortunately gone on for a lot longer than any of us expected, and it is taking such a toll on our health care workers and first responders who have dealt with this firsthand. This helpline gives them the opportunity to talk about their stress and anxiety without having any fear,” said Lalani.

The program now includes a virtual chat option. Those who call or chat with the helpline are screened, provided brief interventions, and then receive personalized peer coaching and referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups according to their needs. Treatment could entail behavioral counseling, peer coaching, and/or medications. Resources are also provided to improve their mental health.

The Heroes Helpline team works in partnership with the Office of Emergency Medical Services at the Texas Department of State Health Services, and is led by James Langabeer, PhD, EMT, a professor of emergency medicine and psychiatry and behavioral sciences with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, and the Robert H. Graham Professor in Entrepreneurial Biomedical Informatics and Bioengineering at UTHealth Houston School of Biomedical Informatics.

“A significant factor in addressing a person’s mental health concerns is to simply allow for robust communications and interactions, as well as potential referrals for more advanced care,” said Langabeer. “As a first responder myself, our team strongly values those individuals who don’t run away from emergencies, and this program is designed to do our part for this community across Texas.”

The team will track results in an effort to understand the overall prevalence of substance abuse among first responders in Texas and identify optimal treatment patterns. Data is secure and will not be shared outside his research team.

First responders and health care workers can call the helpline toll-free at 1-833-EMS-INTX (367-4689), or visit the Heroes Helpline Virtual Lobby at for virtual chat during business hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, if they have any questions or need help with any aspect of substance use or mental health concerns.

The Heroes Helpline is funded in part by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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