…Knowing my limitations. Admitting to my limitations. Approaching my limitations with empathy not punishment. As a psychiatrist, and often the only one many people know in my area, I am often asked for my professional opinion in many settings (educational, collegiate and even personal). I used to feel like it’s an obligation for me to lend my expertise and that the burden of mental health stigma was specifically mine to fix. But the nature of this work is exhausting. I had to learn it was OK to make an informed decision on how much I could give without sacrificing my own sense of wellbeing. That knowing my limits was not weakness.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Mona Masood, DO.
Mona Masood DO is an American Medical Women’s Association member and psychiatrist practicing in Philadelphia. She is affiliated with Jefferson Methodist Hospital.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I am a child of Indian immigrant physicians. I was born in Toledo, Ohio and moved wherever my parents were able to get accepted to do their medical training. For foreign medical graduates, they often are assigned post graduate residency training in underserved, high acuity areas, so my older sister and I grew up in Bronx, NY, the suburbs of NJ and when my parents finished their training, Raleigh, NC.
The physician experience was in my blood. I grew up with the long nights of my parents’ on call schedule, the constant studying, the stacks of medical journals, the medical conferences we would attend even as kids if a sitter fell through, the urgent phone calls from the hospital about deteriorating patients interrupting family dinners.
But, I grew up with pride of their work too. They still practice in NC and absolutely love their work, the relationships they have forged with their patients, the science they continue to marvel at when new treatment or new diagnostic tools becomes available. Being a physician becomes a way of life.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
I am the founder and chief organizer of the Physician Support Line. This is a completely grassroots organization that was started with an “if not me, then who” attitude to address the very obvious impact of mental health on physician wellness during the covid19 pandemic. We are trying not only to address the immediate exhaustion, depression, insomnia, disillusionment of our physician colleagues, but also advocate for the destigmatization of help seeking behaviors that is rampant in physicians.
Most recently we have partnered with American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) to advocate for physician mental wellness at a system’s level, specifically to reframe mental health questions on state licensing applications, in order to encourage physicians to care about their own wellness as they care for others’.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I am a part of a very large social media group of physicians who exchange vetted and clinically relevant data to help each other navigate the pandemic. Early on in March, as I would look through the posts, I started seeing a trend of testimonials about the heavy mental health toll that this virus was taking on my colleagues. As a psychiatrist, I knew this was the proverbial writing on the wall. Physicians already have one the highest suicide rates of all professions, and I knew if we did not act to uplift our own, we would lose the exact people we were all depending on to fight this virus.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
It’s hard to convince people, especially people like doctors who are expected to be in control, have all the answers, and guide others on their wellness, to turn around and give themselves the compassion that they so readily show their patients. As a psychiatrist, I know that often it’s not about how important the message or intervention is, it’s about whether and when the person is receptive to it. So, one day there was a post from a Chinese psychiatrist colleague on this social media forum about how he created a free and anonymous limited mental health chat through an app for healthcare workers in Wuhan, China. The response was very positive to his work, so I saw it as the opening to offer a similar service to our American colleagues but at a much larger nationwide scale. What was remarkable was that within 1 week from my Facebook post, we got a pro bono legal team to work with us, policies and procedures finalized, over 300 volunteer physicians signed up to support their colleagues, and we went live. All within a week.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When I originally conceptualized this support line, I immediately dreamed big. I wanted to change physician mental health at the individual and systemic level. My husband, also a physician, thought I needed to slow down and that the culture of medicine was not ready to accept their vulnerabilities to that level, let alone actively work on it.
But we were wrong. Physician mental health took the spotlight, not just for physicians, but even in mainstream media. There was empathy and concern by our entire nation for our doctors. It was the moment we were waiting for to upend the barriers to physicians seeking help.
I found myself working with major physician organizations such as AMWA, American Psychiatric Association, American Osteopathic Association, Vibrant Emotional Health, the Federation for Suicide Prevention, The Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation amongst others to destigmatize physician mental health.
Never was I so humbled by the act of an ordinary person being able to facilitate so much. Still can’t believe it. And still can’t believe it was me.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Besides the organizations mentioned above, my five administrators, all psychiatrists themselves, and the now 700+ volunteer psychiatrists of Physician Support Line are really the ones who made this succeed. Their generosity of time and expertise has allowed us to continue this work in a sustainable way and honestly, my idea would have remained just that if it wasn’t for my colleagues who shared this vision.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Mental health is not readily quantifiable, meaning we do not have a lab report or a brain scan telling doctors or others something tangible how we are doing. It’s very personal experience, and depression, anxiety etc does not look the same from one person to the next. It’s a very vulnerable experience for people who are suffering to try to explain their inner world and experiences to people who may dismiss it. These are similar feelings to people who experience racism or other types of individual and systemic prejudice. It’s already so difficult and exhausting to experience these feelings, having someone dismiss them would be too overwhelming, so why bother. It’s a way of self preservation.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
At each of these levels, we need to normalize mental health. As individuals and as a society, this includes watching our words in how we describe emotional wellness with others, in media, and our families. Words matter. It also matters how we encourage our friends and how we view ourselves when we struggle. We have to model behavior we want to see at large. Seek therapy, be honest and more nuanced on how you describe your feelings with others. For example, instead of saying “I’m fine” when people ask “How are you?”, you can say “I’m fine overall, exhausted sometimes, sad sometimes, but working through it.” This kind of conversation normalizes others’ inner feelings too and gives implicit permission to recognize and advocate for themselves.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
Knowing my limitations. Admitting to my limitations. Approaching my limitations with empathy not punishment. As a psychiatrist, and often the only one many people know in my area, I am often asked for my professional opinion in many settings (educational, collegiate and even personal). I used to feel like it’s an obligation for me to lend my expertise and that the burden of mental health stigma was specifically mine to fix. But the nature of this work is exhausting. I had to learn it was OK to make an informed decision on how much I could give without sacrificing my own sense of wellbeing. That knowing my limits was not weakness.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Don’t be afraid of whether something you endeavor to do will be a success or not. If you care about something, put it out there. We as human beings are only responsible for the effort, not the outcome. The attempt is in our hands, the outcome, in God’s.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me on Twitter: @ShrinkRapping and Instagram: @shrink.rapping
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!