National Doctors Day celebrates mental health awareness for those on front lines of pandemic

COVID "gave permission for physicians to care about their mental health."

March 30, 2021, 4:04 PM

They say doctors make the worst patients. But now, after a year of working during a global pandemic, it may be time for doctors to get help many sorely need: Mental health care.

Tuesday is National Doctors' Day, a day marked to acknowledge the contributions of physicians. But doctors also say there is a distinct stigma in medicine about mental health -- not just when treating patients, but when admitting that doctors can also be afflicted with these very same diagnoses.

Now, a new service call Physician Support Line seeks "to offer free and confidential peer support to American physicians and medical students by creating a safe space to discuss immediate life stressors with volunteer psychiatrist colleagues who are uniquely trained in mental wellness and also have similar shared experiences of the profession."

The support line was founded by Dr. Mona Masood one year ago today -- at the height of the first wave in the U.S. pandemic.

"I started seeing a lot of, I'll call them testimonials of physicians' emotional health and how they were not coping very well with the start of the pandemic with a very heavy expectation of physicians being heroes and being the front lines of the pandemic," said Masood. "Doctors were very overwhelmed by this position that they found themselves in, and it would not leave me alone."

Fast forward a year later and her grassroots call service has blossomed to having over 1,000 volunteer-licensed psychiatrists willing to give up their time, free of charge, to speak to their peers. They expanded with a website and have gained national publicity with the help of a partnership with Vibrant Emotional Health.

"COVID did something that would never happen for physicians before. It gave permission for physicians to care about their mental health," Masood said.

Masood and Dr. Allison Cotton, one of the first doctors to join Masood, both want their service to be part of the legacy of physician wellness.

"We are also partnering with other organizations to work on systemic reform [and] remove mental health questions on medical licensure applications. We took something, we started a conversation on it," said Masood.

According to Cotton, the camaraderie of doctor-to-doctor support helps.

"It's really challenging to explain the weight and the responsibility that comes with being a physician in particular. It is not something you can truly understand, we felt, unless you have been through medical school, and you have been through that first 24-hour shift," Cotton said.

When asked about its future, Cotton added, "I would love for the physician support line to be included in that kind of culture, where it's not a question of if you need support and help, but when. And when you do, I want physician support line to be at the top of the list."

Cotton said for many, the phone line has made a difference. As an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno, Cotton often interviews candidates for the psychiatry residency training program and recently interviewed one candidate who had used the phone line.

"I interviewed somebody who recognized my face from the website. Her grandmother had died in the last year, and she was trying to navigate interviews," Cotton said. "She called us and she recognized me and just said, 'I didn't know what to say, you guys saved me.'"

For Cotton, that conversation showed it's possible to break down the stigma among doctors about taking care of mental health.

"It was so moving to hear that, especially during an interview because that's a time when she was wanting to feel very professional and she felt comfortable enough, at least with me, showing that vulnerability, which is exactly what we want the culture of medicine to become," Cotton said.

For more information about the website, please go here.

The phone number is 1 (888) 409-0141 and the line is staffed seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Eastern. It is free, confidential and appointments are not necessary.

Samuel Rothman, MD, is a psychiatry resident at the BronxCare Health System in New York City and a contributor to ABC's Medical Unit.

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