Have you ever had a really good idea about how to improve the delivery of mental health services? An idea that would help people, but that would require passion, innovation, and hard work to implement, and one that immediately is beset with a list of reasons why it can not be implemented?
Mona Masood, DO, had an idea. The Pennsylvania psychiatrist was asked to help moderate a Facebook group started by one of her infectious disease colleagues last winter – a private Facebook group for physicians working with COVID-19 patients.
“The group was getting posts from frontline workers about how depressed and hopeless they were feeling,” Masood said. “People were posting about how they were having escape fantasies and how they regretted becoming physicians. It became clear that there was a need for more support.”
She could pinpoint the day – March 22, 2020 – when she came up with the idea to start a peer-to-peer physician support hotline: psychiatrist volunteers would take calls from physicians who needed someone to talk to – the psychiatrist would provide a sympathetic ear and have a list of resources, but this would be support, not treatment. There would be no prescriptions, no treatment relationship, no reporting to licensing boards or employers. The calls would be anonymous.
She posted her idea on the Facebook group, and the response was immediate. “There were a lot of emails – 200 psychiatrists responded saying: “Sign me up.” A Zoom meeting was set up, and the process was set in motion.
Masood used a Google document for weekly sign-ups so the volunteer psychiatrists could choose times. “We had to pay for an upgraded Google suite package for that many users. Getting this up and running was like the saying about building a plane as you fly it,” Masood said. “It forced so much so quickly because there was this acknowledgment that the need was there.”
Initially, the support line launched with a telehealth platform, but there was a problem. “Many doctors don’t want to be seen; they worry about being recognized.” Masood researched hotline phone services and was able to get one for a reduced fee. The volunteers have an App on their smartphones that enables them to log in at the start of their shifts and log out at the end. In addition to the logistics of coordinating the volunteers – now numbering over 700 – the group found a health care law firm that provided pro bono services to review the policies and procedures.
Now that the support line is running, Masood is able to set up the day’s volunteers for the support line connection in a few minutes each morning, but the beginning was not easy. Her private practice transitioned to telemedicine, and her two children were home with one in virtual school. “At first, it was like another full-time job.” She still remains available for trouble-shooting during the day. It’s a project she has taken on with passion.
The support line began as a response to watching colleagues struggle with COVID. Since it launched, there have been approximately 2,000 calls. Calls typically last for 20 to 90 minutes, and no one has called with a suicidal crisis. It is now open to doctors and medical students looking for support for any reason. “Physicians call with all kinds of issues. In the first 3 months, it was COVID, but then they called with other concerns – there were doctors who called with election anxiety, really anything that affects the general public also affects us.”
The group has also offered Saturday didactic sessions for volunteers and weekly debriefing sessions. Masood has been approached by Vibrant Emotional Health, the administrator of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, about resources to help with funding – until now, this endeavor has had no financing – and she is hopeful that their financial support will allow the support line to sustain itself and grow. Future directions include advocating for systemic change in how physician mental health and wellness issues are addressed.
The Physician Support Line was one psychiatrist’s vision for how to address a problem. Like so many things related to this pandemic, it happened quickly and with surprising efficiency. Implementing this service, however, was not easy – it required hard work, innovative thinking, and passion. Those looking for someone to listen can call 1-888-409-0141 and psychiatrists who wish to volunteer can sign up at physiciansupportline.com/volunteer-info.
Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care“ (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.