By Young Hoang
“My mental is not there,” were the words of USA Olympic gymnast Simone Biles before withdrawing from the team final competition, July 28, in Tokyo. Being part of a team, whether on the field or in an office setting, can challenge one’s mental well-being—bringing myriad feelings depending on many different circumstances. The saying, “You’re only as strong as the team around you,” refers to physical endurance and mental capacity which can make or break how a team functions. When an unprecedented change to daily life is added to the equation—such as a global pandemic—the need for accessible mental health services is all the more pressing and becomes even more necessary. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bureau of Medical Services (MED) Office of Employee Consultation Services (ECS) has remained available and ready to provide essential support to the Department of State’s workforce.
In March, ECS celebrated National Social Work Month. First organized in March of 1963, the National Association of Social Workers pushed for the awareness month to raise public support for the profession. With unyielding advocacy, a joint resolution from Congress supporting awareness passed in early 1984. President Ronald Reagan delivered the proclamation designating March as the National Social Work Month, March 22, 1984. The 2021 theme was “Social Workers are Essential,” which only reiterated the value of the Department’s ECS team.
At the start of the pandemic, ECS social workers quickly pivoted and adapted to offering virtual therapy, support groups, and psychoeducational webinars to accommodate the rapid increase in demand for mental health services. At the peak of the pandemic, ECS social workers tirelessly served on the frontlines 24/7 along with MED personnel and other essential employees to provide their services.
“It is remarkable what this team has been able to do to support the mental wellness of Department employees given the COVID-19 challenges and the multitude of stressors presented,” said Dr. Chantay White-Eley, chief of the Employee Assistance Program within ECS.
On any given week, ECS offered more than 200 individual counseling sessions. Over this past year alone, ECS has provided more than 12,000 individual session hours. It was not uncommon for ECS to conduct multiple virtual support groups and training weekly with hundreds of participants regarding support groups and webinars.
ECS social workers helped Department employees and family members suffering from the stress of coronavirus get the best supportive emotional care, stay in contact with their families, and access necessary services for recovery after transitioning from counseling. When an employee or a family member was deceased due to coronavirus or other causes, ECS social workers were there to comfort survivors and help manage their grief. For employees who were single or living alone, ECS social workers focused on helping isolated singles create life-enhancing social connections. While many posts were (and some currently remain) under curfews and lockdowns with uncertain end dates, ECS social workers worked to ensure parents of homebound school children received emotional support and parenting resources. As growing racial unrest took center stage in recent months, ECS spearheaded key initiatives to provide a therapeutic medium for employees to process thoughts and feelings. For those experiencing trauma, depression, and/or anxiety due to divorce, separation, workplace conflict, substance use, political tension, unidentified health incidents, or other stressors, ECS social workers proved invaluable, helping employees overcome personal challenges and rendering professional mental health support.
ECS social workers have gained Department-wide visibility as a crisis-ready and deployable workforce trained to advocate and help employees address stressors and connect with available resources. The success of the team, however, could not have been achieved alone. A key to ECS’ success lies in its social workers’ ability to build bridges and collaborate with other Departmental bureaus and offices. ECS works closely with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Peer Support Group, the Global Community Liaison Office, the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Leadership Council, the Career Development Office, and the Center of Excellence in Foreign Affairs Resilience to name a few. Together, they strive to create a safe environment for employees and their family members to live their lives to the fullest and exercise positive mental well-being.
Additionally, ECS works with embassies and consulates to provide on-site support to employees and staff as needed. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, ECS has supported staff at overseas Missions in Port-au-Prince, Helsinki, Jerusalem, and Manila, and domestically at the Minneapolis Passport Agency.
ECS social workers are often unsung heroes. Just like a coach, they play an essential role in helping the Department’s team accomplish their mission. As Biles told reporters when describing her decision to withdraw from the Games, “Put mental health first because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport.” ECS also encourages employees and families to prioritize mental health and well-being.
With the expansion of ECS’ free and confidential services 24/7, employees will have support available to them at all times. ECS services are strictly excluded from medical clearance review and should not be reported on the medical clearance update form.
To schedule an appointment or for more information regarding ECS services, email the team or call 202-634-4874.
Young Hoang, Ph.D., is the director of the Office of Employee Consultation Services.