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. Today, more than 800 volunteer psychiatrists help their peers via the support line ((888) 409-0141).
The COVID-19 pandemic brought burnout and mental health concerns to the forefront of public discourse, Dr. Masood noted in a recent 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.”
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.”
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If you need help
If you are struggling with depression or considering harming yourself, please get help. The Physician Support Line is available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. ET at (888) 409-0141. Another option is The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides free, confidential support for people in distress 24/7. It also will provide advice to professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations. Please call (800) 273-8255 to speak to a counselor or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat for online help.