Hundreds of mental health workers offer free therapy to Ontario's frontline COVID-19 staff

In less than a week, more than 450 licensed psychotherapists, psychologists and social workers in Ontario signed up to provide free telephone therapy sessions to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 450 licensed mental health workers ready to volunteer their services

Health workers dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario are being offered free therapy sessions over the phone by licensed psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In less than a week, more than 450 licensed psychotherapists, psychologists and social workers in Ontario signed up to provide free telephone therapy sessions to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Toronto psychotherapist Karen Dougherty saw a social media post from someone in New York asking mental health workers to volunteer their time and said she was inspired to offer the same services to healthcare workers in Ontario. 

"We haven't put enough thought into their care," Dougherty told CBC Toronto.

"We celebrate these people as heroes but they're just as human as we are, and we need to give them mental health support in a time of crisis."

Dougherty reached out to colleagues and posted about the idea on social media on Friday. In five days, hundreds of people signed up to volunteer, and Ontario COVID-19 Therapists was created. The group officially launched Monday, but even before that, a dozen healthcare workers had already signed up for therapy. 

Psychotherapist Karen Dougherty created Ontario COVID-19 Therapists to offer free therapy to frontline healthcare workers during the pandemic. (Submitted/David Nam)

The sessions are for any worker providing frontline care related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

They're provided by people who are licensed to provide psychotherapy. Frontline workers can sign up online and are paired up with three mental health workers to choose from.

Each provides up to five sessions over the phone — for free.

"We need these folks to be resilient and to have the strength to perform under stress," Doughtery said. "These are the people who are going to keep us alive. We need to give them the support that they need."

Dougherty said healthcare workers must remain calm at work and there can be a stigma attached to receiving help. She said that stigma is also extending to workers who are in such close contact with positive COVID-19 patients.

She said people in other provinces have also reached out about the idea and she hopes jurisdictions across Canada set up their own COVID-19 therapist network.

Doctors dealing with pre-traumatic stress

Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Toronto's Michael Garron Hospital, said the service is a "huge help" for frontline workers.

Warner believes he has pre-traumatic stress disorder, which he links to seeing the toll that the virus has taken in countries like Italy and China, and the anxiety of knowing Canada is not immune to that scale of illness.

"I have some idea of what could be coming for us in Canada and the fact that we may not be prepared for it," he said.

Dr. Michael Warner is a specialist in intensive care and is the medical director of the critical care unit at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto. (Submitted/Toronto East Health Network)

Warner said healthcare workers worry about not having enough personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and gowns, and are very concerned about what may come next. He said 80 per cent of his anxiety would go away if he knew hospitals were adequately resourced and if he had a clear understanding of how he'd be protected from the virus while doing his job.

"Something really bad could be around the corner," he said, adding hospitals are preparing for it, but the pandemic isn't something that anyone can adequately prepare for. 

"That's got us in a new position as health care workers," he said. "To not really know what our enemy looks like, but have some idea of how bad the enemy can be."

Warner said therapy is helpful because it can be difficult for health workers to speak with their families about what's happening at work because it can add to their loved ones' existing anxiety.

I think about how much risk I was exposed to and I decide whether I'm going to hug my kids.- Dr. Michael Warner

He added that he's heard from colleagues who have already sought mental health help because of the pandemic and said he'd look into the services offered by Ontario COVID-19 Therapists.

"If you do not attend to your mental health along the way, I think the likelihood of you breaking down increases," he said.

He said healthcare workers are also concerned about protecting their families. When Warner gets home, he says he undresses and showers before doing anything else.

"Then I think about my day. I think about how much risk I was exposed to and I decide whether I'm going to hug my kids."

'Absolutely fantastic': Ontario nurses' association

The CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said some nurses are doing "dangerous" work and that some are even staying at hotels to ensure they aren't bringing the virus home. Doris Grinspun said more nurses are considering doing the same in the next week over fears the pandemic will get worse.

"Just picture the added stress that has," she said, commending the free mental health services available.

"I think it's absolutely fantastic," she said.

Grinspun echoed Warner's concern of not having the necessary equipment to keep workers safe. She also said nurses are stressed about not only caring for COVID-19 positive patients, but their families too.

Managing virus-related stress

In order to manage overwhelming thoughts during an uncertain time, Dougherty said it's important to limit the intake of information about the virus. She said there's a careful balance between staying informed and overdoing it. 

"It feels like if you're informing yourself that somehow you have more control than you actually do. But it actually contributes to people's worry," she said.

Dougherty also said it's important while people are practicing social distancing to still connect with loved ones.

Her message to frontline health workers: thank you, reach out and talk to someone if you need to.

"Help is there."


Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto's enterprise unit where she covers a wide range of topics. She has a particular interest in crime, justice issues and human interest stories. Angelina started her career in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at or @angelinaaking