The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.
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When COVID-19 hit the United States, neuroscientist Ariel Brown reached out to her neighbor and friend, Dr. Dan Saddawi-Konefka, asking how she might help. As the Program Director of the Anesthesiology Residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Saddawi-Konefka thought of his over 80 resident physicians. Even before the pandemic, Dr. Saddawi-Konefka was concerned for their mental wellbeing. Now more than ever, he knew he could use the help in supporting his residents.
In working to improve the health of others, physicians and healthcare workers often sacrifice their own wellbeing. Research suggests there is an epidemic of burnout, anxiety, and depression among physicians and medical trainees; studies have also noted increased suicide risk among practicing physicians.[i] This was already a growing concern when the pandemic hit. Physicians and healthcare workers were now expecting to see more loss of life. “We didn’t know if some of our colleagues were going to die. We didn’t know if we might die or if our families would from exposure,” says Saddawi-Konefka. Healthcare workers had to isolate, living in basements and garages, and, in some cases, children were sent away because healthcare workers would not be able to take care of their children and serve their patients. They did this not knowing when they would see their children again. Despite the crippling impacts of fighting COVID-19, healthcare workers were not receiving adequate emotional support. Healthcare workers historically have faced substantial barriers to mental-health support, in particular institutional stigma and access to resources. The global pandemic aggravated these barriers.
Recognizing the need to support his residents, Saddawi-Konefka and Brown worked together to quickly develop a PDF directory of therapists who volunteered to offer their service for these residents. Soon, Others soon learned of this directory, and demand for it spread across healthcare institutions. As Brown describes it, “It was very clear that many people needed help, and many people wanted to help.” Together, the two experts expanded from the directory to form The Emotional PPE Project, with a goal of connecting healthcare workers in need with licensed mental health professionals at no cost and requiring no insurance.
The response was enormous. With Saddawi-Konefka’s health expertise, Brown’s entrepreneurial spirit and their joint passion for mental-health advocacy, The Emotional PPE Project has gone from a simple PDF file to a growing nonprofit organization serving healthcare workers across all fifty states. Brown used her network to bring in contacts with different expertise; now a team of eight practitioners ranging from health practitioners to finance and marketing leads is continuing to push for mental-healthcare access. Brown has made it a priority to try to break into more underserved populations, and the team has expanded its scope into conducting academic research and writing articles to raise awareness in medical journals.
For Brown and Saddawi-Konefka, improving access to mental healthcare for healthcare workers was not a question of if but of how. Saddawi-Konefka had witnessed this need firsthand, especially for his residents. “I just don’t see how you could see all of that and not do something about it.” For Brown, her personal experience showed her the power of professional mental-health support. “I hear these stories and I think about how I could have been that person. I personally might not have had the story and the success that I’ve had if I had had barriers to get mental health care.” Stories continue to pour in of people who are suffering greatly--but there are now also stories of those who have received help from The Emotional PPE. Knowing that a little outside support can make a big difference, Brown, Saddawi-Konefka and The Emotional PPE team reminds us to not be afraid to use the skills one has to make a positive impact.