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Through a new site, health care workers can find mental health counseling for free

Ariel Brown, a medical scientist in Boston, gathered a team of mental health workers for The Emotional PPE Project.
Ariel Brown, a medical scientist in Boston, gathered a team of mental health workers for The Emotional PPE Project.Ariel Brown

It started as a simple exchange between friends.

Ariel Brown, a medical scientist, knew that her Arlington neighbor, an ICU doctor, was worried about his residents’ well-being long before the coronavirus crisis. So in the midst of the pandemic, on March 21, she sent Dan Saddawi-Konefka, the anesthesia residency program director at Massachusetts General Hospital, a text asking how she could help.

He called her immediately. “I’m thinking the most about supporting their mental health,” he said. “Can you think about that?”

That evening, Brown distributed a Google form to mental health practitioners via social media and community listservs. “Front-line medical personnel are in need of increased resources to support their mental health,” she wrote. “Can you help by volunteering some of your time?”

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Within eight hours, 67 Massachusetts-based providers had responded.

Less than a month later, Brown has set up a website that lets health care workers find licensed mental health practitioners willing to offer free therapy. Brown calls it “The Emotional PPE Project” (emotionalPPE.org).

“PPE [personal protective equipment] is getting thrown around a lot,” she explained. “People in hospitals need masks and equipment to protect them from the virus and keep them safe and healthy. We feel there is a gap in [safeguarding] people’s mental health, and we’re providing that protection.”

Brown has filed for 501(c)(3) status and assembled a staff of volunteers to help her run the effort, including an attorney as well as engineers and designers who’ve worked for Adobe, Facebook, and Wikipedia. After a pilot week with 15 counselors available and Saddawi-Konefka’s 80 residents invited to participate, the site opened Wednesday night with 75 Massachusetts-based licensed mental health counselors signed on to offer services. Brown’s team designed it to be user-friendly, free of insurance hassles, and entirely anonymous, and she hopes it will eventually provide care nationwide, for as long as it’s needed.

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“What we do is connect people,” said Brown. “Once they’re connected, the therapist and the client manage their own relationship and do whatever work they feel is appropriate."

Brown worked for seven years as a postdoctoral researcher at Mass. General’s psychiatry department and went on to work in medical writing. She joined her current employer, Cambridge-based Sage Therapeutics, in 2017. At MGH, she saw firsthand that pandemic or not, a resident’s life is filled with serious stressors. “This is a group of people who works 80 hours per week trying to get used to hospital life,” she said. “People are dying around them. It’s very high-stress, emotional, and time-intensive.”

Dan Saddawi-Konefka, anesthesia residency program director at Massachusetts General Hospital, saw a need to support residents' mental health.
Dan Saddawi-Konefka, anesthesia residency program director at Massachusetts General Hospital, saw a need to support residents' mental health.Dan Saddawi-Konefka

And now, said Saddawi-Konefka, health care is a career defined by uncertainty. He choked up when he described some of the COVID-related pressures on his residents, including having to send their children to live with relatives to avoid exposing them to the virus; seeing some patients suffer and die alone; and worrying about the fate of their colleagues, some of whom have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

When asked what it’s like for him — a board-certified doctor in anesthesiology and critical care medicine who finished his own residency in 2013 — to endure that same uncertainty, he likened it to “running a code,” the medical profession’s term for providing emergency resuscitative efforts to a patient.

“When you’re actually running the code,” he explained, “you’re very rational: You do this, and this, and this. You tend not to process things emotionally. And then when the code is done, you take your time to process everything. In the past few weeks, because there’s so many planning needs and logistics, so far I feel like I’m in running-the-code-mode. If and when I do take a minute to think about it, it’s distressing. It’s nothing I feel completely overwhelmed by at the moment, but it doesn’t feel normal.”

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Some have likened “running-the-code-mode” to a wartime mentality, said Saddawi-Konefka, who is now on the governing board of The Emotional PPE Project and wonders if after the pandemic, “PTSD or anxiety or other wartime illness in health care workers” will be more prevalent. “Which is why if we’re living it right now and have the opportunity to offer interventions to prevent that, that’s all the better.”

Melissa Karen Sances is a Globe correspondent. She can be reached at melissaksances@gmail.com.