TRENTON — A state senator is preparing to introduce legislation when the Senate returns next week to support the mental health needs of health-care workers and first responders helping – and coping – with the COVID-19 response.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said the needs for such efforts are especially clear after a New York City emergency room doctor took her own life by suicide.

“This pandemic has had a dramatic impact on everybody,” Bucco said. “But our doctors and nurses and first responders have not only been hit with the physical impact of having to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but the potential mental impact that will result from having to witness and live this crisis day in and day out.

“Has to be thought about now,” he said. “They’re the real heroes that work on the front line and saw this on a daily basis. And it’s after this crisis is over and they begin to have a little bit of a break in the number of patients that they’re treating is when the mental side of this impact will kick in.”

Bucco said the state should enact a law requiring a toll-free hotline where health-care workers and first responders can call for mental health referrals.

There is a general N.J. Mental Health Care hotline for anyone dealing with stress, anxiety and depression due to COVID-19: (866) 202-4357. It’s available daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“That would be the initial step,” Bucco said. “Then I think we’d have to come up with some programs … so that either the state or federal government would cover the cost of treatment for these heroes that may not be covered by their personal insurance or workers’ compensation. Got to make sure that these folks are made whole.”

Bucco likened the program to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health needs of healthcare workers and first responders to similar efforts implemented after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The doctors and nurses in our emergency rooms and in our hospitals during this crisis were forced to not only provide care, but they were also there and also called upon almost become as a surrogate family member for some of these folks, to hold their hands,” he said.

“They witnessed so much, even the number of deaths that they had to witness. And they were for the most part the only people available for these folks in their final hours,” Bucco said. “So this will definitely have an impact on them going forward, and we need to be prepared to deal with that.”

The Senate has a quorum call and committee hearings scheduled for Monday. The Statehouse complex remains mostly closed due to the health emergency, so any hearings will take place virtually over the phone.

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