Long before the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Mona Masood, DO, a psychiatrist in the Philadelphia area, had been thinking about creating a peer support resource for physicians.
In the early days of the pandemic, she saw the mental health toll it was already taking on physicians across all specialties, so she put that plan into action by founding Physician Support Line, (888) 409-0141, a free and confidential peer support service for physicians to discuss stressors with volunteer psychiatrists.
“We get it. It’s a shared experience across physicians,” Dr. Masood said. “There are services and mental health professionals that hospital administrations and groups provide, but those spaces aren’t as safe to be vulnerable as they are with your colleagues, because we’ve been through it like you have.”
Over the last two months, The DO has been speaking with osteopathic physicians who are fighting COVID-19. If you are a physician and would like to be featured in an interview as we continue our COVID-19 coverage, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week we spoke with Dr. Masood, who was able to get the support hotline rolling with a full staff of psychiatrists within a week of her first call for volunteers. In this edited Q&A, she discusses how she pulled things together so quickly, the stressors physicians are calling in to talk about, and the unique value of physician peer support.
What was the response to the initial call for volunteers like?
I put out a call to all psychiatrists on social media on March 22 saying I was thinking of starting a hotline for our colleagues who are navigating COVID-19. Just kind of, “who’s with me?” I put it out on my own page, but also other physician networking pages on Facebook.
The response was kind of incredible. It went from 50, to 100 and 200, and now we’re at over 600 volunteers. We had it up and running by March 30 and are averaging now well over 20 calls a day. That number is climbing, though.
When COVID-19 hit, it was like, it’s now or never to put this resource out there. It felt like at the time, this should have been available yesterday, and it feels like that even now, in our sixth week of this service. We should’ve started this a while ago.
What training do volunteers receive before they start taking calls?
We brush up on crisis management because this is a very acute trauma and not everybody sees traumas of this nature in their practices. This is something you don’t have time to unpack over several sessions.
We have to build trust relatively quickly. You also have to know how to reach the person where they’re at and deal with the crisis at hand in a relatively short amount of time. These people have to go right back into the battlefield.
We have some rules of engagement. This is not a doctor-patient relationship. There’s going to be no medication prescribed, no money exchanged. It’s anonymous and not affiliated with any institution.
We put all of these things into place from the get-go. Training is required because everybody has their own way of seeing patients. But these are not patients, they’re colleagues. We’ve had lecturers come in to talk about disaster psychiatry, psychological first aid and crisis intervention as an educational way of refreshing people’s skills so they can do this unique work.
How much time is everybody putting in?
We have so many volunteers, and we needed that because we didn’t want to put too much on anyone’s plate. If we’re all about physician wellness, we have to include ourselves.
People are advised to sign up for up to one to two hours a week if they want to. We send out the sign-up sheet once a week, and within a day, max 36 hours, the entire next week fills up, including back-ups.
Our volume of calls has been increasing. We want it to be relatively available for anybody who wants it, and we have the resources now to have three or four volunteers per shift. Physicians can call and speak to someone 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. ET every day.
What are some common stressors physicians are calling in to discuss?
The majority of callers are working through something they can’t talk to anybody else about, because they either feel like they’re burdening their families, or there’s an expectation on physicians to have all the answers.
We’re the ones who are supposed to be healing and comforting everyone else. So if they’re broken inside or suffering or having anxiety or stress, physicians can feel trapped in terms of not being able to share that vulnerability.
It’s also not helping that we’re being praised as heroes. That’s a lot of pressure. The word “hero” implies having superpowers, that you’re not human. When you have that kind of pressure, you have nowhere to turn. Doctors understand that about each other, we understand the pressure of it, the expectations, and the vulnerability we actually feel.
Have you been getting positive feedback?
There’s a unique thing about anonymous support lines—we’re not going to ask for reviews. But we’ve had some people comment on our posts on their own volition, saying things like, “I used it and it was great, and I’ve been referring my colleagues.”
Our volunteers tell me that the callers are breaking down and so grateful, and we have repeat callers who have made calling us part of their self-care. And we encourage that. Whatever you need, call us whenever you want to.
The number for the Physician Support Line is (888) 409-0141.