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‘Angels on campus’: Record number of Capitol staff seek counseling in year after Jan. 6

Demand for mental health support soared after the insurrection and kept going strong

A smashed window is pictured at the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2021.
A smashed window is pictured at the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The trauma suffered by thousands of employees on Capitol Hill is reflected in a record number seeking mental health services in the year after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The House Office of Employee Assistance, or OEA, had more than 12,200 individual interactions in 2021, more than any prior year. That included 5,600 counseling sessions and more than 1,491 individual and group onsite interactions with Capitol Police personnel. 

David O’Boyle, communications director for the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, said the OEA averaged seven contacts per client case in 2021. The office’s services are also available to the family of members and staff, although in 2021, as in previous years, they made up a small percentage of visitors. 

Members, legislative staffers, police officers, maintenance workers and others at the Capitol could reach out to the OEA for counseling after their workplace turned into a war zone. 

“We want the government to start leading on this stuff, not being stuck in the Stone Age,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, who chairs the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, which draws up funding each year for both the OEA and the Capitol Police. He said managers should take the time to make use of mental health resources and encourage their staff to do the same. 

The Ohio Democrat said new programming for Capitol Police, launched in partnership with Jim Gordon of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., includes a focus on mindfulness and techniques used by veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“What you’re seeing is an immediate recognition that you have some say and some control over how your body and mind respond to thoughts that you have, recollections of that day, the initial trauma,” Ryan said. 

But Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said the force would “have to suspend our health and wellness initiatives that we’ve started” if Congress fails to pass the fiscal 2022 Legislative Branch appropriations bill. 

Even more detrimental would be that the force, with sinking morale and 153 officers who retired or resigned in 2021, would continue to be understaffed and overworked. The chief said he plans to hire 280 officers, more than double the typical annual hires, each year for the next three fiscal years to close the staffing gap. 

“I think the biggest impact would be our inability to increase our staffing, which is so critical. All we would be able to do is just replace the people that left. We can’t survive and continue; we have to increase our staffing,” Manger testified to the Senate Rules panel in a hearing on changes to the force since Jan. 6. 

Resources available

The stalled appropriations package has the OEA waiting on new funding too. The Legislative Branch subcommittee recommended Congress provide the OEA with $2.3 million in fiscal 2022, an increase of $635,000 above the office’s requested funding level, to support the needs of the Capitol community. 

With last year’s funding, the OEA hired two more full-time counselors, an administrative specialist and a part-time graduate student counseling intern. From January to September, three contractors were brought on for additional appointment-based counseling. 

Lawmakers expressed concern in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection that contractors who are not technically employees of the legislative branch but come to work each day at the Capitol, including cafeteria and custodial staff, didn’t have access to mental health services. 

But O’Boyle pushed back. “The OEA’s services have always been available to contractors, including those from Sodexo, and their families, if they’d like to use them,” he said in an email, referring to the food vendor that staffs the House cafeterias.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., has been vocal over the last year about the importance of seeking counseling after Jan 6. His office said the OEA does offer services to contractors but could further develop those to better meet their needs.

“They have stopped short,” his spokesperson Kaylin Dines said, flagging help for non-native English speakers as one area in which the OEA could improve.

Expanded drop-in services, as well as more availability in early January for appointment-based counseling, is one approach the OEA is taking to help those struggling with the one-year anniversary of the Capitol breach. The office is co-hosting webinars with the House Wellness Center this week, Wednesday through Friday, to provide an overview of resources. 

The Wellness Center also planned several “substantial live interactive courses on meditation, mindfulness, and stress management, all taught by recognized experts in their respective fields,” O’Boyle said. 

The OEA’s companion office in the Senate, the Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, has its own plans to mark the anniversary with activities throughout Thursday and will make in-person and virtual counselors available to address any immediate concerns. 

In an email sent to Senate employees Tuesday morning, the EAP noted that reflecting on the events of Jan. 6 “may trigger a range of emotions that can cause physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological distress.”

“While some may experience feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty, others may feel anger, frustration, and disappointment,” the email continued. “Some may even feel numb or try to avoid the day. Although uncomfortable, these are normal responses when recollecting an unprecedented event.”

More to do

Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, said he has nothing but praise for how quickly the House and Senate employee assistance offices ramped up their services. 

“They are angels on campus. They are doing nothing but the best work they possibly can under very difficult circumstances,” Fitch said. 

The OEA saw an immediate spike in individual interactions in the weeks after the insurrection: a total of 1,150 by February, compared with 3,000 contacts with employee clients and another 3,000 virtual training sessions in the first six months of 2020. The office’s increased counseling services are now available in-person and by video and phone. 

Back in February, lawmakers such as Rep. Jennifer Wexton had criticized the OEA for lacking video counseling, a service many in the private industry used readily during the pandemic. “Being able to look someone in the eye is really helpful,” the Virginia Democrat told the office’s director, Paul Tewksbury. 

Tewksbury pledged to make that a goal, and the following month, his office launched a video conferencing platform. 

Another priority for House Democrats is for the OEA to incorporate culturally sensitive mental health services. That could mean increasing the diversity of counselors or expanding services for staff whose first language isn’t English. 

Kayla Primes, president of the Congressional Black Associates, told CQ Roll Call in an email that the office has been a valuable resource for her organization’s members as they struggled with the “violent displays of racism” they witnessed during the insurrection. 

“As Black staffers on the Hill, the impact of those symbols struck deep,” she said. 

Feeling alone

The violence that unfolded last January amounted to the worst attack on the Capitol since the British torched it in 1814. 

Officer Brian Sicknick died from a stroke the day after the Capitol breach. Officer Howard Liebengood died by suicide. Approximately 80 other Capitol Police officers were injured in combat with rioters wielding fire extinguishers, flag poles and baseball bats. 

But some Republicans have whitewashed the deadly event, and it’s taken a toll on staff as they try to feel safe again in a workplace they once believed to be impenetrable. 

One staffer told CQ Roll Call in May that when they saw members who deny the insurrection happened, “I think to myself that they wouldn’t care if I was dead.” 

Clinical psychologist Janice Krupnick, founder and director of the Trauma and Loss Program at Georgetown University, said lack of validation of the events of Jan. 6 can be a serious complication in processing the trauma. 

“One of the factors that has been found to be most helpful in coping with the trauma and getting over it is social support. And when you have people who deny your experience, that’s the opposite of social support,” Krupnick said. 

Lawmakers holding news conferences on Capitol Hill to decry the treatment of insurrectionists prosecuted for the attack is especially hard on the police, who are tasked with protecting those same members, Ryan said. 

“They don’t give a damn about what’s going on with the cops who are dealing with all of this stuff. So it’s insulting to them, too, on top of the injury,” the Ohio congressman said. 

The Congressional Black Associates, Congressional Progressive Staff Association and Women’s Congressional Staff Association all told CQ Roll Call they’ve encouraged their members to use OEA resources over the past year.

Jacob Wilson, co-founder of the progressive group, said staff associations can help connect their members with the OEA’s “buffet” of events and programming through community-based outreach. 

“Somebody you know texts you and says, ‘Hey, there’s this OEA session on Monday. Would you go with me? … I know that you were looking for stuff like this,’” he explained. 

Wilson said it’s difficult for his members to balance self-care and a sense of personal responsibility to share eyewitness accounts of rioters shattering windows and breaking down doors. 

“We lived through it. We watched as our friends, family, colleagues, were in grave, potentially mortal danger. And we dealt with the fallout. … It would be dangerous, in fact, not to share that story and to portray it as anything but what it was,” Wilson said. 

Reliving Jan. 6

The ongoing politicization of Jan. 6 has also exposed staff to an increasing volume of death threats. They’re most often directed at the boss, but the “person on the front lines getting it could be an intern or a staff assistant,” Fitch pointed out. 

His organization hosted a webinar in April on handling stress and trauma that was attended by about 85 staffers. In a poll, 57 percent of participants said on a daily or near daily basis they experience direct insults or threats and anxiety over their safety or the safety of their member or congressional colleagues. 

The third question in the poll sheds light on the deep level of commitment congressional staffers feel, even as they are overwhelmed by concerns for their own well-being and safety. “Frustration at not being able to help as much as I’d like,” was something 73 percent of the participants said they had experienced. 

“We urge every congressional office to change their phone intake policies immediately to prevent harm to their employees — even if just temporarily through January,” Fitch said in a column co-written with the American Psychological Association the week after the Jan. 6 attack.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary, Primes said it can be particularly triggering when your job requires you to be “tuned in” to the media. 

“Self-care as a Hill staffer goes a very long way, and that includes seeking professional care and talking with their office about their needs for this anniversary,” she said. 

Krupnick, the Georgetown psychologist, said it could be helpful for congressional employees to limit their exposure to news reports, photos and videos on the anniversary of the attack. “Those reminders might well be triggering and re-traumatizing,” she added.

At the one-year mark, the violence of Jan. 6 can seem far off from the rhythms of markups, floor votes and news conferences at the Capitol — a horrific but isolated event that has passed. But many staffers and police still need time to heal. 

“It’s about how do you take these traumatic experiences and really transform yourself and transform the trauma into a mindset of growth. And I can’t think of any institution that needs to grow more than the Congress,” Ryan said. 

Chris Cioffi, Chris Marquette and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report. 

If you or someone you know needs help from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 800-273-TALK (8255), text 741741 or chat with a crisis counselor at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. You can reach the House Office of Employee Assistance at 202-225-2400 or the Senate Employee Assistance Program at 202-224-3902.

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