COVID-19: National Psychiatrist-Run Hotline Offers Docs Emotional PPE

Emily Sohn

April 24, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As Mona Masood, DO, a Philadelphia-area psychiatrist and moderator of a Facebook forum called the COVID-19 Physicians Group, reviewed post after post about her colleagues' fears, anxieties, and the crushing pressure to act like a hero, inspiration struck. Would it be possible, she wondered, to create a resource through which psychiatrists would be available to provide frontline physicians with some emotional personal protective equipment (PPE)?

Dr Mona Masood

She floated the idea in the Facebook forum, which has more than 30,000 members. The response was immediate. "All these psychiatrists just started contacting me, saying, 'Please let me be a part of this. I want to volunteer,' " she told Medscape Medical News.

On March 30, Masood launched the Physician Support Line, a free mental health hotline exclusively for doctors. Within the first 3 weeks, the hotline logged more than 3000 minutes of call time. Some physicians have called repeatedly, and early feedback suggests the resource is meeting a vast need.

"Most of the cases have a lot of emotion from both sides. There are a lot of tears, a lot of relief," said Masood.

 

"If Not Me, Then Who?"

Physicians have been facing mental health challenges long before the pandemic, and doctors have long struggled with stigma in seeking psychological help, says Katherine Gold, MD, a family medicine physician at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who studies physician well-being, suicide, and mental health.

As a whole, physicians tend to be perfectionists and have high expectations of themselves. That combination can set them up for mental distress, Gold notes. Studies that have focused mainly on medical students and residents show that nearly 30% have experienced depression. Physicians are also at significant risk of dying by suicide.

Compounding the issue is the fact that physicians are also often reluctant to seek help, and institutional stigma is one persistent reason, Gold says. Many states require annual license renewal applications in which physicians are asked questions about mental health. Doctors fear they'll lose their licenses if they seek psychological help, so they don't pursue it.

A study conducted by Gold and colleagues that analyzed data from 2003 to 2008 showed that compared to the general public, physicians who died by suicide were less likely to have consulted mental health experts, less likely to have been diagnosed with mental health problems, and less likely to have antidepressants in their system at the time of death.

The COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate these trends, suggests a recent study from China in which investigators surveyed 1257 healthcare workers in January and February.

Results revealed that a significant proportion of respondents had symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress. This was especially true among women, nurses, those in Wuhan, and frontline healthcare workers who were directly engaged in diagnosing, treating, or caring for patients with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.

As Masood watched similar concerns accumulate on the COVID-19 Physicians Group Facebook forum, she decided to take action. She says her mentality was, "If not me, then who?"

Assisted by a team of experts, she created the hotline without any funding but with pro bono contributions of legal and ethical work, and she received a heavy discount from a company called Telzio, which developed the hotline app.

The hotline is open daily from 8:00 AM to midnight Eastern Time, and calls are free. Services are available only to physicians, in part because as a group, doctors tend to harbor guilt about asking for help that someone else might need more, Masood says.

When other types of healthcare workers call in, volunteers redirect them to hotlines set up for first responders and other healthcare providers.

So far, more than 600 psychiatrists have volunteered. They sign up for hour-long shifts, which they fit in between their own patients. Two or three psychiatrists are available each hour. Calls come directly through the app to their phones. There is no time limit on calls. If calls run long, psychiatrists either stay on past their shifts or pass the call to another volunteer.

Fight or Flight Response

Since its launch, the number of calls has steadily increased, Masood says. Callers include ICU doctors, anesthesiologists, surgeons, emergency department doctors, and some physicians in private practice who, Masood says, often express guilt for not being on the front lines.

Some physicians call in every week at a certain time as part of their self-care routine. Others call late at night after their families are in bed. If indicated, psychiatrists refer callers for follow-up care to a website that has compiled a list of psychiatrists across the United States who offer telehealth services.

There are no rules about what physicians can discuss when they call the hotline, and popular topics have evolved over time, says Masood. In the first week after the hotline's launch, many callers were anxious about what the future held, and they saw other hospitals becoming overwhelmed. They worried about how they could prepare themselves and protect their families.

By the second week, when more doctors were in the thick of the pandemic and were working long hours, sometimes alone or covering shifts for infected colleagues, there were concerns about coworkers. Some were grieving the loss of patients and family members. The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), says Masood, has been a common topic of conversation from the beginning.

Given the many unknowns about the virus, physicians have also grappled with the uncertainty around safety protocols for patients and for themselves.

On a deeper level, physicians have expressed a desire to run away, to stop going to work, or to quit medicine altogether. These escape fantasies are a normal part of the fight-or-flight response to stress, Masood says.

Doctors often feel they can't share their fears, even with family members, in part because of societal pressures to act like heroes on the front lines of what has been framed as a war, she adds.

Heroes aren't supposed to complain or show vulnerability, Masood says, and this can make it hard for physicians to get the support they need. Through the hotline, psychiatrists give doctors permission to feel what they are feeling, and that can help motivate them to go back to work.

"They don't want to look like cowards, because that's the opposite of a hero," she said. "Saying it to another doctor feels much better because we get it, and we normalize that for them. It's normal to feel that way."

Each week, Masood conducts debriefing sessions with volunteers, who talk about conversations filled with raw emotion. When conversations wind down, most physicians express gratitude.

They tell volunteers that just knowing the hotline is there provides them with an emotional safety net. Masood says many physicians tell volunteers, "I know that if anything's going wrong, I can just call and somebody will be there." Volunteers, too, say they are benefiting from being involved.

"We are all really having this desperate need to be there for one another right now. We truly feel like no one gets it as much as we get one another," said Masood.

Long-term Fallout

The need for psychiatric care is unlikely to end after the pandemic retreats, and Masood's plan is to keep the hotline running as long as it's needed.

Like the rest of the world, physicians are in survival mode, but she expects a wave of grief to hit when the immediate danger ends. Some might blame themselves for patient deaths or question what they could have done differently.

The long-term impact of trauma is definitely a concern, Gold says. Physicians in the ER and ICU are seeing many patients who decline quickly and die alone, and they witness young, previously healthy people succumb to the virus.

They're seeing these kinds of cases over and over, and they're often doing it in an environment where they don't feel safe or supported while people in many places stage protests against the measures they feel are helping protect them.

Like veterans returning from war, they will need to reflect on what they've experienced after the adrenaline is gone and there is time to think.

"Even when things calm down, it will be great to have resources like this still functioning that can help folks think back through what they've been through and how to process that," Gold said. "Things are going to remind them of experiences they had during COVID, and they can't predict that right now. There will be a need for the support to go on."

Masood is optimistic that the pandemic will bring the issue of physicians' mental health out of the shadows.

"We have a really deep feeling of hope that that there's going to be a lot more empathy for one another after this," she said. "There's going to be a willingness to not take mental health for granted. Doctors are people, too."

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