December is already the most stressful time of the year for many Americans, but add a pandemic into the mix and the stress can be too much to handle.

That’s why the Kern County Latino COVID-19 Task Force has launched a new mental health and wellness hotline. By calling 525-5900, Kern County residents struggling to make it through the most challenging holiday season in recent memory can get access to a sympathetic ear and some potentially much-needed advice.

“Many of our folks in Kern are alone, they’re isolated,” Task Force co-founder Jay Tamsi said. “They don’t understand the virus. They have questions about the vaccine. Their family members have passed away and they are still grieving. And it’s OK for them to call in.”

Callers can remain anonymous, and operating hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If someone doesn’t answer the phone right away, voicemails will be returned within 24 hours.

Set up to answer as many questions as possible, the help line will also aid those going through mental health situations. A team of three operators answers the phone, passing off the call to a professional counselor if necessary. Therapy sessions of up to 40-minutes could follow, with follow-up appointments available if necessary.

“It’s been a tough year for everyone,” Tamsi said. “We hear it on the other side of the phone. Emotionally, mentally, folks of all ages are calling in, and we feel like we are doing the right thing at the right time, and our strategic plan is working, and will continue to work for the months ahead.”

For Adriana Salinas, a licensed marriage and family therapist, the help line is especially important at a time like this.

“There’s such a spike in anxiety,” she said. “In clinical theory, anxiety comes from not knowing the future and not being stable. All of us are in the same boat where nobody knows what’s happening.”

Her counseling practice has seen an increase in clients since working from home has thrust families closer together than they ever have been before. With children learning through computer screens and work potentially getting cut short, there’s no shortage of reasons to be stressed.

“One of our biggest goals is to let people know that there is help out there. For people who have depression or anxiety or suffer from a mental illness and with everything going on, mental health professionals are still working,” Salinas said. “We’re still out there and our purpose is to make sure that people continue to find support.”

Since launching on Tuesday, the help line’s three operators have already received dozens of calls. Some callers are worried they are positive for COVID-19, others fear for family members in the hospital. A few just want to talk.

“That’s been a lot of it,” operator Bianca Torres said of her time working the help line. “They’re just grateful that someone is there to listen. If I can just make their day a little bit better during this stressful time, then we are doing our job.”

Torres, who works as a research assistant at the Kern Medical's Valley Fever Institute, said she got involved in the help line out of a desire to give back to the community. She said she’s fielded a variety of calls so far, even dispensing advice to some people wondering if they should hold a large family Christmas party.

“I just tell people it’s tough right now, but it will get better, and we’ll be with our families soon,” she said. “It’s just better to stay safe.”

The help line is available to anyone. English and Spanish options have been set up. For more information, visit www.kchcc.org/taskforce.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.