May is Mental Health Month and for one industry, workers are stepping up to provide much needed mental health support for their peers. More than 600 psychiatrists are volunteering to staff a hotline that is providing counseling services to physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Healthcare workers are in a precarious position on the frontlines of the struggle against COVID-19. In China, Italy, Spain, the United States, and other countries, thousands of healthcare workers have been infected with the coronavirus. In hospitals where COVID-19 patients have surged, healthcare professionals have worked under disaster conditions for days and weeks with little respite.
Earlier this spring, the Physician Support Line (888-409-0141) was launched to provide free counseling to doctors facing mental health challenges during the pandemic. In the first 3 weeks of the service, more than 3,000 minutes of counseling were logged.
Physician Support Line’s founder says moderating a COVID-19 physician group on Facebook inspired her to start the hotline.
“From very early on in February, there were many medical and academic topics, but there also were a lot of posts about mental health. It was not just mental health as a concept for others and how we were going to deal with patients—it was mental health of physicians. There was a lot of anxiety, a lot of insomnia, and a lot of dread,” says Mona Masood, DO, founder and chief organizer of Physician Support Line, and a practicing psychiatrist at Southampton Psychiatric Associates in Ivyland, Pennsylvania.
How The Support Line Works
There are two options for callers to Physician Support Line. Non-physician callers can press 1 to be connected to the Disaster Distress Helpline, a first responders and healthcare workers support line, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Doctors can press 2 to be connected to a Physician Support Line psychiatrist, who are available from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. Eastern Standard Time seven days a week.
The volunteer psychiatrists sign up for hour-long shifts, Masood says. “The service is based on psychiatrists who are working actively with their own patients. Sparing an hour is not a lot to ask of people doing volunteer work; and as a collective, we are having a big impact.”
The cost of operating Physician Support Line is about $350 per month. Masood is paying for most of the cost.
‘Physicians Are Running on Empty’
Calls to Physician Support Line have evolved over the past few weeks, mirroring the progression of the pandemic, Masood says.
“At the beginning of the hotline, calls were about physicians not having cases yet, but they were feeling anxious. There was anticipatory anxiety about what was to come.
“In the second week, many of the calls were about the case load of patients increasing every day, hours being extended, and not having a break for a week. Physicians were working nonstop, sleeping at their hospitals, and being separated from their families. The calls were focusing on how physicians could survive the demanding schedule.
“In the third week, it became about death. Physicians were losing patients. Physicians could not get their patients to FaceTime with their families before they died.
“Now, physicians are running on empty. They have not had time to process grief or loss like they would have before the pandemic. They just have to keep going. It looks similar to war. Physicians have gotten the virus themselves—some are doing well, and others are waiting to see whether their condition is going to get worse and they are going to be hospitalized.”
Dealing with Regret
The pandemic has revealed a deep-seated vulnerability among physicians, Masood says.
“Almost every call is starting off with the physician saying, ‘I’m so sorry for taking up your time.’ There is regret. The physicians are feeling like they should not be calling and talking about their challenges. Physicians have an expectation that they have internalized—they are not supposed to be taking care of themselves, they are supposed to be taking care of other people. There is a lot of guilt that is associated with that.
“We have to remind physicians that we created this resource for them.”
Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care editor at HealthLeaders.
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