Multiple research studies have shown that the pandemic has placed added strain on the already difficult profession for the first responders and the healthcare workforce. 

Compassion fatigue, or the emotional and physical exhaustion associated with working with victims of illness, trauma, or disaster, is common among first responders and the healthcare workforce, and is described by psychologists as secondary trauma.

Established in 2020, the Heroes Helpline is a free and confidential, 24/7/365 telephonic support service for first responders and healthcare workers in Texas who are experiencing mental health and/or substance use concerns. The phone service is available all day, every day, at 833-367-4689, or one can visit the Heroes Helpline Virtual Lobby click here during normal business hours, Monday through Friday.

The Heroes Helpline was developed and launched in April 2020 by Dr. James Langabeer, a professor of emergency medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, in partnership with the Office of Emergency Medical Services at the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Dr. Karima Lalani is part of the team that oversees and manages the Heroes Helpline. She is an Assistant Professor at UTHealth Houston School of Biomedical Informatics (SBMI), and Assistant Director of the Center for Health Systems Analytics at UTHealth Houston that oversees this program. She completed her PhD in Healthcare Management and Policy at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, and she has work experiences in academic medicine, healthcare workforce education, and digital health.

Karima’s multidisciplinary educational and work background has allowed her to work towards improving population health through prevention, policy and treatment programs, and with the Heroes Helpline team, they are able to offer services to those who need it the most - our first responders and healthcare workers. In her role, she is responsible for managing projects entailing clinical informatics research, and forging partnerships for expanding the Center’s thought leadership in areas of emergency public health challenges, mobile health, and inter-organizational work as well as healthcare quality.

Says Karima, “We launched the Heroes Helpline just when the pandemic had started in 2020, as the pandemic is having such a toll on our first responders and health care workers who have dealt with it firsthand. This helpline allows them the opportunity to talk about their stress and anxiety without the fear of judgment or stigma.”

The rationale behind Heroes Helpline initiative is to support first responders as they experience much higher rates of occupational stress, which results in increased risk for mental health concerns. First responders and healthcare workers can call the Heroes Helpline anytime and trust that their information will be handled with care, and will receive a referral tailored to their needs.

The pandemic has encouraged many organizations and communities to address the stresses it has caused, both health professionals and families, due to work pressures, financial issues or family relationship difficulties. The Heroes Helpline has similar objectives to the Ismaili community’s ACCESS initiative, although the latter also helps individuals through both professionals and volunteers, with general mental health issues, housing problems and other personal needs. The common denominator is the need to reach out to those requesting assistance and to offer empathy and support.

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, and the program is overseen by The Center for Health Systems Analytics at UTHealth Houston. Heroes Helpline is staffed by professional paid staff, and calls are answered by state-certified peer recovery support specialists. The Center has three dedicated peer specialists for the helpline and several other operational staff members. Calls received so far have managed to assist over 40 first responders and the healthcare workforce from the entire state of Texas, covering the range of mental health concerns, including anxiety, stress, and substance use.

Accumulated analytic metrics obtained from the program are confidential, and used strictly to identify prevalence of substance abuse among first responders in Texas, to create optimal treatment options. As an advanced integration of digital platforms, the program now offers a virtual lobby option click here for screening and brief intervention so that individuals can receive personalized peer coaching, referrals for local facilities and support groups, and behavioral counseling.