Illustration of healthcare workers
The Work-Life Issue

3 Organizations Providing a Free Lifeline for Healthcare Workers

There's no doubt early in the pandemic, healthcare workers were pushed to their limits. Crowded hospitals required doctors and nurses to work long hours caring for patients suffering from an unprecedented and unpredictable COVID-19 virus. The pressure and demands of the situation put a physical and mental strain on those seeing patients.

According to a 2021 survey published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine of more than 500 healthcare workers and first responders, a substantial majority of respondents reported experiencing clinically significant psychiatric symptoms, including:

  • anxiety (75%)
  • depression (74%)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (38%)
  • recent thoughts of suicide or self-harm (15%) 

To support healthcare workers' mental health during the pandemic, many people were inspired to establish organizations. Below are three that sprung up over the past few years and continue to make a difference in the lives of doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers bearing the brunt of caring for the public during the ebb and flow of the pandemic. 

Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation

Lorna Breen, MD, was a seasoned emergency room physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan when the COVID-19 crisis hit. In a period of three weeks, Breen treated COVID patients, contracted COVID herself, and returned to an overwhelming number of critically sick patients. At the peak of COVID, she worked 15 to 18-hour shifts with limited PPE, insufficient supplies, and not enough equipment to care for patients; some of who were dying in the hallways. 

When Breen called her sister Jennifer to share that she was overwhelmed and exhausted to the point that she couldn’t get out of her chair, Jennifer and her husband Corey Feist went to Manhattan and took Breen to a mental health hospital, where she stayed for 10 days, receiving the first mental health treatment of her lifetime. A few days into her stay, Breen called her sister to express concern that her career as a physician was ruined because she was receiving mental health treatment. 

When Breen returned to work on April 1, 2020, her fear continued, as she worried her colleagues would notice she couldn’t keep up. Breen died by suicide on April 26, 2020. 

Corey Feist

What Lorna was feeling is felt by doctors and nurses across the country today. The average person can ask for help, but not healthcare workers; in [several] states, they can lose their license for seeking [treatment for mental health]. That’s unacceptable.

— Corey Feist

Toll of Physicians' Mental Health

According to a 2022 Medscape report, when physicians were asked why they have not sought help for burnout or depression, their top reasons were:

  • I can deal with this without help from a professional (49%)
  • Don’t want to risk disclosure to medical board (43%)
  • Concerned about it being on my insurance record (32%)
  • Concerned about my colleagues finding out (22%) 

After Breen's death, the Feists went on the "Today" show to spread awareness about the mental health strain healthcare workers faced during the pandemic. After the show, they received an outpouring of support from the healthcare workforce, thanking them for sharing Breen's story. One sentiment they heard often was the need for change when it comes to questions on licensure applications and hospital credentialing applications that ask about a person's prior mental health

The responses moved them to establish the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation, which aims to reduce burnout of healthcare professionals and safeguard their well-being and job satisfaction by: 

  1. Advising the health care industry to implement well-being initiatives
  2. Building awareness of these issues to reduce the stigma; and
  3. Funding research and programs that will reduce health care professional burnout and improve provider well-being. 

"While Lorna is our beacon and inspiration, we started the organization because we heard from the
healthcare force (hundreds) after she died that something needed to change," said Feist. "Now, what we have is a huge subsection of our healthcare workforce who has experienced repetitive trauma for two years. For some of them, this has been 9/11 every day for two years, and because of their fear of repercussions to continue working, they are going to suffer in silence."

On March 18, 2022, the foundation's work helped pass the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which establishes grants and requires other activities to improve mental and behavioral health among healthcare providers.

The more we talk about mental health, the more we normalize it and give others permission to speak. Lorna was the toughest person I knew in the world and she was a seasoned physician in New York. She worked through Ebola in New York and other crises. This wasn’t about being tough.

He added that many solutions to the problem are complex, but that small actions can help. 

“[Like] someone being vulnerable and recognizing the need for self-care, and peer support (recognizing a colleague who needs support) that don’t cost money. We need to make it clear that you care for yourself and colleagues just as you would your patients,” he said. 

The foundation’s next mission is to raise awareness among medical licensing boards, nursing boards, and hospital systems about the impact of including mental health questions on applications. They hope licensing boards will change questions to reflect current mental health impairment and exclude past ones. 

“We are asking all hospitals in this country to simply publish to their workforce that they can
get mental health support without repercussions, which can be a life-saving opportunity for all of the healthcare community,” said Feist. 

The Emotional PPE Project

In March 2020, Ariel Brown, PhD, neuroscientist, was talking to her neighbor and friend Daniel Saddawi-Konefka, MD, critical care physician and anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, when she was moved to help with the COVID crisis. 

“Dr. Dan…is responsible for directing [about] 100 anesthesiology residents and was struggling with the best way to support them during the onslaught of COVID," said Brown. "I wanted to help and so I put out a call on social media to see if any of the therapists in my network wanted to volunteer some of their time to help these folks who were fighting on the frontline of the pandemic." 

The therapists raised their hands in droves to offer free therapy to healthcare workers. When
Brown passed on their contact information to the residents, many reached out to therapists for help
at a no-cost, no-insurance, streamlined option for healthcare workers to seek mental health care. 

Ariel Brown, PhD, neuroscientist

Because of the goodwill of the mental health provider community and because of the great need in the healthcare worker community, things grew very quickly. I put together a team, which I led to set up to be able to scale. Two years later, we are a national nonprofit organization that has over 700 volunteer therapists and has served over 2,000 healthcare workers across the nation.

— Ariel Brown, PhD, neuroscientist

Over the course of the pandemic, she has learned that healthcare workers face significant barriers to getting support for their mental health. The Emotional PPE Project is designed to streamline mental health service by lifting barriers, including: 

  • Financial: Facilitating services at no cost and with no insurance.
  • Access: A streamlined process to connect with therapists
  • Stigma: Remaining 100 percent confidential and unaffiliated with any organization that employs
    healthcare workers

“Overall, we seek to take away every barrier that we can so that the folks experiencing unprecedented stress and trauma can have a streamlined connection with someone that can help,” said Brown. 

The Emotional PPE Project is also involved in research and advocacy work similar to that of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation, including working to reform licensing practices to protect the mental health of physicians

The Emotional PPE Project

  • Healthcare workers, find a therapist in The Emotional PPE Project directory
  • Licensed therapists, sign up to volunteer your time
  • Anyone, support the organization by making a tax-deductible donation

Therapy Aid Coalition

As the world started to shut down due to COVID-19 in March of 2020, Jennifer Silacci, LCSW, psychotherapist, felt grateful she could work from home and shelter in place although anxious about the virus. 

Jennifer Silacci, LCSW, psychotherapist

I wondered, if those of us at home felt so overwhelmed, how were those on the frontlines coping? How were they processing the anxiety around constant exposure to a potentially deadly virus? And what could I do to help them?

— Jennifer Silacci, LCSW, psychotherapist

She decided to offer free and low-cost therapy sessions to healthcare workers and asked her colleagues if they would join her. Word spread, and before she knew it, thousands of volunteer therapists from across the country joined Silacci. 

“Quite honestly, I had no idea how to manage this new, growing network of volunteers, or the thousands of emails pouring into my inbox, so I asked everyone I could think of for help. Childhood friends and even some kids I babysat (now adults) stepped up. A friend connected us with her law firm, and soon we were a fully formed 501(c)(3) public charity,” she said. 

Within months of putting out the initial call, Silacci established the Therapy Aid Coalition,
now made up of over 3,000 licensed therapists, who offered free and low-cost online therapy to essential workers in the United States. 

Because confidentiality is a concern for many healthcare professionals, and many do not want to utilize employee assistance programs (EAPs), health insurance, or support and resources from their hospitals and clinics, Silacci said her service offers them the opportunity to connect with a therapist anonymously. Over the past two years, the program has served thousands of essential workers throughout the country. 

“I think the pandemic and the amazing work of so many nonprofits…have shed light on the need for mental health support, destigmatization, and advocacy for mental wellness within the healthcare professions,” she said. 

Because the Therapy Aid Coalition continues to receive hundreds of requests monthly, Silacci said, normalizing the fact that healthcare professionals “while perhaps heroic in their actions—are still painfully and beautifully human” needs to become more understood. 

“We all have a breaking point. It is my belief that individuals that have been on the frontlines may not even fully realize the impact of their experience just yet. Some are still running on adrenaline. Some are still numb and just trying to make it through another shift,” she said. “I believe we will see a greater need for mental health support among frontline workers in the next year or two, as they finally come up for air, and have the time and space to unthaw, and digest all that has unfolded.”

Those affected also include mental health professionals, Silacci added, and taking care of therapists is also one of her objectives. While the Therapy Aid Coalition currently offers free and low-cost services, it plans to pay therapists via stipends as it accumulates grants. 

Those affected also include mental health professionals, Silacci added, and taking care of therapists is also one of her objectives. While the Therapy Aid Coalition currently offers free and low-cost services, it plans to pay therapists via stipends as it accumulates grants. 

“We want services to be free to essential workers, but we also believe it is absolutely not fair to ask therapists to continue to offer pro-bono sessions two years into the pandemic,” she said. “[Therapists] are essential workers, and also qualify for free short-term sessions with us!” 

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hendrickson RC, Slevin RA, Hoerster KD, et al. The impact of the covid-19 pandemic on mental health, occupational functioning, and professional retention among health care workers and first respondersJ GEN INTERN MED. 2022;37(2):397-408. doi:10.1007/s11606-021-07252-z

  2. Medscape. Physician Burnout & Depression Report 2022: Stress, Anxiety, and Anger.

By Cathy Cassata
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people.