Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

The story below marks the first of a series of Austin Independent articles on the wages, working and living conditions of essential workers and other workers hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Some of these articles, including the one below, will be written by the Independent’s new reporter and intern, Bismarck D. Andino, from the  University of Texas School of Journalism. We are pleased to have Bismarck on board. He has already brought a new dimension to the Austin Independent, including not only the story below, but also by creating a Facebook page where readers can discuss articles, share opinions and so on. Daryl

by Bismarck D. Andino

AUSTIN — As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and 12 states — including Texas — hit record-highs, the aftermath of the coronavirus shutdown continues to hurt not just people’s pockets, but also their mental health. 

According to polling data by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 45% of adults in the United States reported worry and stress related to loss of income or employment due to the coronavirus. Older adults and households with adolescents are at a higher risk for depression and suicidal ideation, the report says.

Coronavirus polls conducted in mid-March also showed 50% of Hispanics were most likely to report life disruption by the outbreak.

Sixty-year-old Juana recalls a crisis episode she describes as “unpleasant,” which took her to an emergency psychiatric care facility for four days. 

“I don’t like to talk about these things,” Juana said with a broken voice in her native Spanish. “One day I woke up there, and I asked myself why? ‘Oh! because you try to commit suicide.’”

Juana, who asked her surname not to be used over security concerns due to her immigration status, said she fell into depression shortly after being laid off from work and isolating from her family.

“It felt like I was drowning from sadness after seeing what was happening,” Juana speaks of the pandemic. “I try having conversations about it [depression] now, but it’s hard because I don’t have that many [close] friends to talk about this issue.”

Montserrat Pichardo, her granddaughter, said talking about mental health disorder is very uncommon in her family.

“Especially within Hispanic families, we really don’t talk about that stuff,” Pichardo said. “For her to go through that alone and not being able to talk about it, bothered me.”

But, Pichardo said this experience served as an eye-opening event for her family, which has brought them closer to support Juana during these unprecedented times.

Each year, about 33% of Latino adults with mental health disorder receive treatment in comparison to the national average of 43%, according the National Alliance for Mental Illness. However, amid the coronavirus lockdown and people losing their jobs, that number could be higher.

Meanwhile, in response to the crisis, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission launched in April a 24/7 statewide mental health support line tollfree at 833-986-1919 to help Texans experiencing anxiety, stress or emotional challenges due to the virus.

Elliott Sprehe, a press officer for the commission, said Harris Center operators have answered more than 4,000 calls in 154 counties since launched. 

Last week, 13% of the callers received support in Spanish. Among those callers, 15% were ages 18-39, 22% in the 40-64 age group, while 7% over 65, Sprehe said in a statement. 

“Our top priorities continue to be providing access to services for Texans statewide,” Sprehe said. “These resources can include direct referrals to local mental health authorities or immediate crisis line.”

For frontline workers, Sprehe also said, the hotline can provide them with group log in information to a virtual support group. 

The support line, which is the first one launched for a statewide disaster, will continue to be active until its use is no longer required, Sprehe added.

Prior to the pandemic, Juana worked full time as a laundry attendant at a hotel in downtown Austin, making $800-$900 every two weeks. Today, however, Juana said she is trying to survive by selling Mexican food among family and acqaintances because no one wants to hire her. 

“My daughter has now taken over my [mortgage] bills, but she is also struggling,” Juana said. “She is single mom of three.”

Ashley Pocas, a hospitality worker, said the pandemic hit the Austin Hispanic population hard, especially those working at hotels through temporary agencies. 

Pocas said the housekeeping personnel at a large downtown hotel where she works was reduced to six hotel maids at one point. Some of them started doing food delivery services and working in construction, while others struggled at home, Pocas said.

“I got very upset because we were expecting to make more money during the [South by Southwest] festival,” Pocas continued, “and suddenly everyone was working in a very reduced schedule, and then nothing.”

As Texas continues to relax coronavirus restrictions, Austin hotels have experienced an increase in occupancy. However, the hotel where Juana worked remains temporarily closed.

 Meanwhile, Juana said she did not receive a stimulus check from the federal government, not even her grandchildren who are U.S citizens, despite paying taxes. 

“I’ve been working for 25 years and never needed help from the government,” she said. “I’ve always supported myself through my jobs.”

Juana also said she is not hoping to receive any sort of government assistance and that her only concern right now is finding a job, which has been impossible because she is undocumented and does not speak English.

“We always have it worse,” Juana said, “and that’s not fair because we work harder than anybody else.”


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