More House staff are seeking counseling, but they can’t get video sessions with OEA

‘Being able to look someone in the eye is really helpful,’ one lawmaker says

Fire trucks line Independence Avenue on Jan. 6. In the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, counseling appointments for House staff and Capitol Police have risen sharply. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Fire trucks line Independence Avenue on Jan. 6. In the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, counseling appointments for House staff and Capitol Police have risen sharply. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 18, 2021 at 6:03pm

Interest in mental health support has surged at the Capitol as Congress continues to deal with the fallout from January’s mob attack. Keeping up is now the challenge, officials acknowledged at a Thursday hearing.

“You all don’t have the ability to do video conferencing for your sessions for clinicians, is that true?” Rep. Jennifer Wexton asked.

It’s true, said the director of the House Office of Employee Assistance, Paul Tewksbury, though his office has been providing a “huge amount” of services over the phone. 

Moving to video is a goal, but one that will require time and resources, he said. 

“I just want assurances that it’s a priority,” said Wexton, a Democrat from Virginia. Her reasoning was brief: “Being able to look someone in the eye is really helpful.” 

That exchange captured both the energy and frustration building in Congress around the topic of mental health support for the sprawling Capitol community. After a mob stormed their workplace last month, smashing windows and shouting threats, staffers have sought out help through existing avenues, but some wonder if it’s enough.

Since the attack on Jan. 6, the OEA has had a total of 1,150 individual interactions with employees and managers, Tewksbury said during Thursday’s meeting of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee. That included 760 counseling sessions and over 300 individual onsite interactions with Capitol Police personnel — a “significant increase” given the short period of time, which “really speaks to the magnitude of the event and the needs,” he said. 

By comparison, counselors with his office had more than 3,000 contacts with employee clients during the first six months of 2020 and reached another 3,000 people through virtual training sessions, said Tewksbury, who testified alongside Bryan Weiss, manager of the House Wellness Center.

Congress can seem like one gigantic workplace, but it’s actually a hodgepodge of smaller ones, with hundreds of lawmakers each running their own mini operations. Many staffers are still working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Policies and culture can vary from office to office, along with the various agencies that keep the Capitol complex running, like the Capitol Police. But the House does have some umbrella offerings for workers, like the services of the OEA. House staffers can access those services through the internal HouseNet website, the same one they use to fulfill administrative functions. It was last overhauled in 2013 but remains updated with the latest information. 

Tewksbury said the OEA has worked to be even more visible after the attack, stressing that the help it offers is confidential. The office has eight full-time staff members, three contracted counselors and a graduate student in mental health, plus four contracted staff onsite for around-the-clock response for Capitol Police personnel. 

The police counselors are on a time-limited contract that has already been extended and “we are actively exploring strategies to extend that further,” Tewksbury said.

An email to the Capitol Police department requesting comment went unanswered. 

The attack on Jan. 6 overwhelmed Capitol defenses and left five dead, including Capitol Police officer Brian D. Sicknick. In the aftermath, two more police officers who had served at the scene died by suicide. 

Tewksbury said his office has conducted suicide awareness trainings and refresher courses for Capitol Police officers in the past, and counselors are now working to connect with managers and supervisors to reach out to those officers who are struggling. 

“We are very much working towards suicide prevention, and then we move on to, you know, other types of well-being, but that is absolutely essential,” he said.

Last month, congressional staffers told CQ Roll Call they were struggling in the wake of the attack, which came after an already grueling year dominated by the pandemic and a chaotic election cycle. They described feelings of helplessness, guilt and fear. Some who answer phones as part of their jobs reported an uptick in threats and vile language.

Those problems are still fresh, lawmakers said. But talking about them openly in the forum of a congressional hearing is a kind of victory in itself, said House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro.

“I’m so proud to join with you today because as I understand it, this is the first congressional hearing dedicated to an open conversation about mental health in the Congress,” the Connecticut Democrat said.