Mental Health: Shattering the Stigma

Photo by Bella Rothstein


Ariel Brown, PhD

The Emotional PPE Project

By Stephanie Watson

When COVID-19 surged in 2020, health care workers covered their bodies and faces in personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid getting sick. Yet no quantity of masks, gowns, or goggles could shield them from the mental trauma of what was to come. More than 90% of health care workers surveyed in late 2020 said they were experiencing stress, and 76% said they were exhausted and burned out.

Neuroscientist Ariel Brown, PhD, senior director of medical science at Sage Therapeutics in Cambridge, MA, wanted to help, but she wasn't sure how. She had expertise in mental health—she'd researched ADHD and helped develop the first drug approved for postpartum depression—but she wasn't in the trenches with the health care workers.

So she asked her friend, Daniel Saddawi-Konefka, MD, Anesthesia Residency Program director at Massachusetts General Hospital, what she could do to support young doctors during the pandemic. He advised her to think of ways to provide more resources for the physicians.

The daughter of two therapists and a believer in the healing power of counseling, Brown reached out to every therapist in her social media network and asked for volunteers. "I got a really incredible response," she says. "A bunch of therapists raised their hands and said they wanted to help."

That request launched The Emotional PPE Project in spring 2020, which aims to help protect health care professionals from the emotional impact of the pandemic.

Brown originally thought they'd be offering doctors and nurses an emotional respite from their grueling 60- to 80-hour workweeks. Quickly she began to see how many barriers there were, besides time, to health care workers asking for help. "I found out that there is a profound reluctance to ask for emotional support," she says. "There is a sense in physicians, in nurses, in those who are dedicating themselves to taking care of others, that taking care of oneself shouldn't be the priority."

Breaking Down Barriers

The image of health care worker as hero had become popularized during the pandemic, with yard signs on front lawns and many other efforts to thank those workers. But the public recognition had an unintended consequence for some: making health care workers more reluctant to ask for help for fear of appearing weak and incapable of caring for their patients. Brown was determined to break through the stigma.

"From the beginning, it was our very clear intention to lift every barrier possible between somebody who wants to get help and the people who are there to help," she says.

The Emotional PPE Project is a nationwide network of more than 700 therapists that connects health care workers with free, confidential counseling. It is supported by the therapists who work pro bono as well as individual and corporate donors.

Shortly after its creation, it was clear from the number of users that there was a great demand for help. "It became very clear that there was a need, and that there was so much willingness to help take care of that need," Brown says. So far, the program has connected more than 2,000 health care workers with therapists, and the experience has been rewarding for both groups.

"The Emotional PPE Project provided me an opportunity to feel useful during a time when so many of us felt helpless; offering me a chance to be of support to the brave responders who were running into the unknown daily, caring for the health and well-being of others, often to their own detriment," says Kimberly Johnson, PhD, former therapist and current board member for The Emotional PPE Project.

Brown believes there will always be a need to care for the emotional health of frontline workers, even when the current pandemic fades, and that changes in policy and support from medical regulatory bodies are necessary. "What we're doing is a Band-Aid—a short-term solution until we can really change things, so that we're not needed anymore," she says.

More In This Series


Medical resident Justin Bullock speaks out about suicide and mental health in his profession, using his own personal struggles to help others overcome the stigma.


Through his nonprofit, Next 18, Matt McDonell uses golf to help veterans and first responders deal with trauma through camaraderie, meditation, and mindfulness practices.


To curb loneliness, cofounders Anthony Zhou (left), Aditi Merchant (center), and Allen Zhou (right) link generations through Big & Mini, a virtual volunteering site.

Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD, WebMD Lead Medical Editor on 7/28/2022

TOC Photo: Bella Rothstein

Ariel Brown, PhD, board president and founder, The Emotional PPE Project.

Mental Health America: "The Mental Health of Healthcare Workers in COVID-19."

Kimberly Johnson, PhD, former therapist and current board member for The Emotional PPE Project.