CarePlus, Inserra team up to provide stressed frontline workers with counseling — right in supermarket where they work

It may not feature the oversized couch or the bookshelf with Freud, but you can buy items that might help a grocery store’s unused room pass for your typical therapist’s office in the checkout line nearby.

And, if you’re asking Gabriella Urato … a commandeered space meant for in-store dietitians at a Bergen County grocery center can be the best place for therapy.

It’s settings like that where experts such as Urato, senior director of clinical services for behavioral health service provider CarePlus, have decided it’s important to set up shop.

As the state’s quarantine efforts and workplace closures left people reliant on platforms like Zoom to see anyone, grocery store workers continued to see everyone. But, what not everyone saw were the mental health issues they’re coping with as a result of being suddenly thrust into the pandemic’s front-lines.

“I think this was a stress for many that they haven’t endured before,” she said. “These aren’t health professionals knowing they’ve got to enter an environment they know might come with risks. These are people unexpectedly dealing with that risk for them and their families, a new level of shoppers coming into stores, early discrepancies over proper use of PPE and also financial concerns.”

In recognition of that, Urato’s Paramus-based organization contracted with Inserra Supermarkets Inc., which operates ShopRite and PriceRite stores, to make on-site clinicians available. More than 40 clinicians are now offering in-person and remote support at stores in Bergen, Hudson and Passaic counties in New Jersey as well as Rockland County in New York.

The unique initiative began in early May. Several months into the pandemic situation, Urato said these essential workers still have a lot of their minds, even outside the continued spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Since we’ve been in the stores, stressors have expanded even beyond the pandemic,” Urato said. “With the political climate, the Black Lives Matter movement and general mental health issues being on the rise … there’s a lot people want to discuss, and, so, this is proving itself to be more valuable than we intended.”

Having clinicians on-site at grocery stores allows for a more discreet environment for these workers than they’d have if all they could rely on to talk about issues was pulling coworkers aside. And they don’t have to go anywhere for the confidential environment — it’s right where they work.

Urato, who said the initiative also involves clinicians acting as local liaisons that guide workers to other CarePlus services, said this demographic otherwise faces barriers to accessing behavioral health services. Sometimes, that’s just in the form of stigma that’s still attached to seeking out therapy as an answer to life’s problems.

“We’ve heard from employees that their experiences with us really combated preconceived notions of what therapy is,” she said. “They might’ve come in with a certain thought process about who needs to access mental health services. So, it’s important to create a safe space right in their own place of employment to (dispel) that.”

The workers that rushed supplies back to shelves when they were needed most and those that stood face-to-face with entire communities who needed to buy products in checkout lines — stressful even in the most normal of times — are hurting.

Thankfully, most aren’t letting apprehensions get in the way of talking to someone about it.

“There are many times these workers come in to see us because they’ve heard we’re there and want to find out why,” Urato said. “They might start off skeptical, but, by the end, find themselves talking out something or just decompressing, whether it’s related to their job or COVID-19 or not. They get something off their chest in a way that allows them to continue going through everything they’re going through.”

At-risk youth

Rutgers University
Frank Ghinassi of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care.

Local behavioral health leader Frank Ghinassi has a Gen Z daughter he credits for being level-headed. But, he’ll admit he’s heard a few pleas for his blessing to attend gatherings of high school friends when they’re still ill-advised.

It’s something that’s true for a lot of parents today. Younger generations are missing a social support system that’s terribly vital for them. And, for some, that’s had a major impact on their mental health.

Ghinassi, CEO of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and RWJBarnabas Health’s senior vice president of behavioral health and addictions service line, said the pandemic has had a “variable effect” on millennials and Gen Z.

“A lot depends on what the person’s pre-COVID baseline was like,” he said. “By that, what I mean is, for someone who was relatively free of psychological stress or preexisting conditions — someone going to school with no history of trauma, depression or anxiety — by and large, they’re going to respond with redoubled efforts to enhance their own resiliency.”

So, those younger individuals socially distanced for half a year, and, throughout, continued to keep in touch with others in their existing network — even if they eventually got a bit antsy to see friends again outside of computer or phone screens.

However, Ghinassi said there’s also younger individuals who may have come out of households with lots of adverse social determinants, such as unstable housing situations. Or, they were just more introverted individuals who relied on work, gyms or bars to interact with others.

They haven’t fared as well.

“The pandemic has put these individuals at higher risk (for mental health issues),” Ghinassi said. “We’re trying to prevent them from tipping over.”

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