Nisha Mehta, MD, said her phone has been ringing with calls from tearful and shaken physicians who are distressed and unsettled about their work and home situation and don’t know what to do.
What’s more, many frontline physicians are living apart from family to protect them from infection. “So many physicians have called me crying. ... They can’t even come home and get a hug,” Dr. Mehta said. “What I’m hearing from a lot of people who are in New York and New Jersey is not just that they go to work all day and it’s this exhausting process throughout the entire day, not only physically but also emotionally.”
Physician burnout has held a steady spotlight since long before the COVID-19 crisis began, Dr. Mehta said. “The reason for that is multifold, but in part, it’s hard for physicians to find an appropriate way to be able to process a lot of the emotions related to their work,” she said. “A lot of that brews below the surface, but COVID-19 has really brought many of these issues above that surface.”
Frustrated that governments weren’t doing enough to support health care workers during the pandemic, Dr. Mehta, a radiologist in Charlotte, N.C., decided there needed to be change. On April 4, Dr. Mehta and two physician colleagues submitted to Congress the COVID-19 Pandemic Physician Protection Act, which ensures, among other provisions, mental health coverage for health care workers. An accompanying petition on change.org had received nearly 300,000 signatures as of May 29.
Don’t suffer in silence
A career in medicine comes with immense stress in the best of times, she notes, and managing a pandemic in an already strained system has taken those challenges to newer heights. “We need better support structures at baseline for physician mental health,” said Dr. Mehta.
“That’s something we’ve always been lacking because it’s been against the culture of medicine for so long to say, ‘I’m having a hard time.’ ”
If you’re hurting, the first thing to recognize is that you are not alone in facing these challenges. This is true with respect not only to medical care but also to all of the family, financial, and business concerns physicians are currently facing. “Having all of those things hanging over your head is a lot. We’ve got to find ways to help each other out,” Dr. Mehta said.
Where to find support
Fortunately, the medical community has created several pathways to help its own.
The following list represents a cross-section of opportunities for caregivers to receive care for themselves.
- Physician Support Line. This free and confidential hotline was launched on March 30 by Mona Masood, DO, a Philadelphia-area psychiatrist and moderator of a Facebook forum called the COVID-19 Physicians Group. The PSL is run by more than 600 volunteer psychiatrists who take calls from U.S. physicians 7 days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., with no appointment necessary. The toll-free number is 888-409-0141.
- For the Frontlines. This 24/7 help line provides free crisis counseling for frontline workers. They can text FRONTLINE to 741741 in the United States (support is also available for residents of Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom).