Supporting doctors

What needs to be done to improve physicians’ mental health and reduce burnout

Psychiatrist Mona Masood, DO, founder of the Physician Support Line, shares insights on physician mental health and the changes that must happen at the systemic level.


Editor’s note: The following article is from the October 2021 edition of The DO. We have updated it and are highlighting it in May 2024 as our monthly “throwback” article, our effort to share past columns to provide helpful advice and information to the osteopathic medical community.

Already concerned about physician well-being before the pandemic started, psychiatrist Mona Masood, DO, quickly saw the mental health toll the crisis would have on doctors, so she founded the Physician Support Line, a free, confidential peer-to-peer hotline for all physicians, in March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic brought burnout and mental health concerns to the forefront of public discourse, Dr. Masood noted in a keynote address at OMED21.

“During COVID, we were finally having this window amongst physicians to address our mental health,” she said. “Before that, we would normalize it, we would accept it, we would intellectualize it, that compassion was meant for the people we’re taking care of and not for ourselves.

“COVID … blew that right open. We had to, as desperately as we were taking care of others, we had to take care of ourselves. Because if there was no us, there would be no way to navigate this pandemic for others.”

In 2024, the support line has just celebrated its fourth anniversary, and has now supported thousands of callers, speaking about as many subjects.

“Though the primary focus is no longer COVID-19, the physician support line remains a mental health gateway for medical students and physicians to navigate acute stressors and learn about what resources are available to them for continuity of care,” said Dr. Masood. “We talk about any subject from the match, to family and marital dynamics, to moral injury in health care, imposter syndrome and self-advocacy.

“We continue our work with other physician organizations to openly and unapologetically address the need for physician mental health destigmatization at the personal and systemic level. We have also just become an official nonprofit and are accepting donations for operational costs of our anonymous free volunteer-run support line.”

Normalizing talking about mental health

An important first step in addressing physician mental health was normalizing discussions about physicians’ mental health challenges and normalizing seeking professional help for mental health issues, Dr. Masood said, noting that she and her colleagues began speaking to hospital staffs, residency programs and medical schools about reframing what mental health is and the importance of focusing on mental health.

At the same time, there is also much work to be done to support clinician well-being at the systemic level, according to Dr. Masood. The health care system needs to better support clinicians’ mental health, and some state licensing boards need to reframe the questions on their applications to make sure they don’t penalize physicians for seeking mental health treatment, according to Dr. Masood. Dr. Masood and her colleagues have begun working on projects to address these issues.

“Our burnout is not because we are not cut out to do this work,” she said. “Our burnout is because we are not allowing ourselves permission to be human. And the system has capitalized on that, to not allow ourselves to be human, but to be cogs within a larger system that centers the bottom line over the sustainable wellness of the physicians that are integral in the care that it gives.”

A call to action

The goal is to reclaim the narrative of physician mental health, noted Dr. Masood, who also urged the entire medical profession to join her in championing and supporting clinician well-being.

“I hope that in whatever ways you can, when you talk to colleagues, when you talk to, especially the ones who are residents, or medical students, that you remind them that they are important,” she said. “That they are not just a part of your team or a part of your service, that you center them in their humanity and you ask them and you talk to them about who they are as people, not just the specialties they want to go to, you ask and you care about whether they’re sleeping, whether they’re eating, whether they have families, what are their goals in life, what are their interests in life, that you remind them that their importance is not just patient care.”

If you need help

If you are struggling with depression or considering harming yourself, please get help. The Physician Support Line is available Monday to Friday (except federal holidays) from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. ET at (888) 409-0141. Another option is the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which can be reached 24/7 by dialing or texting 988. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress across the United States.

Related reading:

We are not immune: Recognizing National Physician Suicide Awareness Day

Physicians and mental health: Making medical license applications less punitive to doctors who seek help

One comment

  1. James M Merrill DO

    Improving Physicians mental health. This has many implications. To start with, get the government, big business, insurance companies (who can afford to pay their CEO’s multiple millions, is any one that good?), and get the computers out of our exam rooms! Go back to being a caring physician, instead a computer whiz putting in the right codes! You can make some diagnoses just by paying attention to the patient. Touching them can improve your diagnosis! Imagine that! The most serious ‘epidemic’ in our country is not the covid.

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