Asking for help and saying “Yes”​ in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic

This post first was first published on LinkedIn on 14 July 2020.

What I learnt working on Heroes Health, a new initiative to support the mental health of COVID-19 frontline health care workers and first responders

Back in March, I got a call from Dr. Sam McLean, a trauma researcher and emergency physician at the University of North Carolina. At the time, I was struggling to settle into the new reality of my life in the pandemic. Working from home in a never-ending stream of video calls, I was missing my team and spontaneous chats with co-workers in the kitchen. I felt isolated from my friends and family, not having the energy for yet another video call after work. My husband and I were figuring out new parenting skills: how to homeschool our children, how to deal with ever-expanding screen time when they asked for Minecraft and Netflix after doing their online school work. Yet our family’s struggles felt tiny compared to what others were facing. As I read the devastating news of COVID-19 infections, deaths and job losses mounting up in Europe and elsewhere, I felt helpless and uncertain of where to make a difference in this new world beyond taking care of my family and my team. Sam gave me that opportunity on that grey March morning. 

Sam told me about his work on the COVID-19 frontlines in the hospital. As a trauma researcher, he saw the havoc that the virus was wreaking not just on the lives of his patients but also on his coworkers. Already on the edge of burnout, healthcare workers were confronted with a novel virus without treatment or vaccine, lack of PPE and ventilators, watching their patients suffer and die through glass screens, worrying about infecting their own families. After our call, I read up on the literature. Sam’s personal experience was backed up by many papers discussing the toll on healthcare workers during previous infectious disease outbreaks (Brooks et al., J Occup Environ Med 2018). New papers were already coming out describing increased depression and anxiety among healthcare workers who dealt with COVID-19 in China (Lai J, Ma S, Wang Y, et al. JAMA Netw Open 2020). So what could be done about it?

Sam’s idea was to measure the mental health of COVID-19 frontline workers with a mobile app, and connect them with mental health resources. He wanted to help workers understand and track their own mental health state during this time of extreme pressure, and encourage them to get help – many healthcare workers don’t seek mental health treatment. He called it the “Heroes Health” initiative to draw attention to the health needs of the heroes who are doing so much for others every day. He needed a technology partner and reached out to me for help.

I said “Yes” immediately, and asked others in our company for help. The first to say “Yes” was Jamie Rogers, a product manager on the Google Cloud team. By the end of the day, Sam had engineers from my team at X and Google Cloud working on his app. Two weeks later we had volunteers from across the company donating their time, many working evenings and weekends. The project had become a cross-functional effort of Alphabet engineers, scientists, product and program managers, partnerships, marketing, PR and sales folks supporting Sam’s team of researchers and clinicians at UNC. The Google Cloud team provided free hosting to UNC as part of the Google Cloud Research Credit program. Our design agency O/M Studio made the Heroes Health logo for free. The team at Boston Technology Corp in India worked alongside the Google engineers, turning around bug fixes while our US-based volunteers slept.

While the tech team worked on the app, Sam enlisted the help of other mental health experts such as Ron Kessler at Harvard and Samantha Meltzer-Brody at UNC to design the mental health surveys and support services we wanted to link from the app. We interviewed frontline workers and hospital administrators to understand how to make Heroes Health useful to them, aware that they were already busy and overstretched. Nearly every hospital we spoke to said “Yes” and wanted to take part in the initiative, but they needed our help. We realised that Sam’s team at UNC needed to provide central analytics and program management to support institutions and connect Heroes Health participants to mental health services. We also learnt that with hospital budgets under pressure due to COVID-19, there was no way we could ask participating organisations to fund the initiative.

Sam and I reached out to philanthropists to ask for their help to get Heroes Health off the ground.Garen and Brandon Staglin at OneMind and Zia Khan at The Rockefeller Foundation were the first funders to say “Yes”. Bank of America, The Lauder Foundation and individual donors followed. Those who could not give money generously introduced us to their friends. Within 6 weeks, we had raised $500k we needed as seed funding. We are continuing conversations with funders to cover the project’s expanding needs.

In the middle of all this, Sam stopped responding to my emails. I was worried but kept working on the app and fundraising, hoping he was ok and would reappear eventually. After a long week of silence, I got an email confirming what I had feared: he had contracted the virus and given it to his wife, his son and possibly his dog. I was relieved to hear they were all fine and recovering well. Now a COVID-19 survivor himself, Sam re-emerged with even more energy to make the Heroes Health initiative a success. With the philanthropy funding, he built a diverse team of program managers, data scientists and tech people at UNC to support the project.

Image: UNC Heroes Health team

Image: UNC Heroes Health team

Meanwhile, the world started taking note of COVID-19’s impact on mental health. The pandemic turned a simmering mental health crisis into an acute one, as the UN noted in a policy report on COVID-19 and Mental Health. Millions of people are affected physically by the virus, and many more are affected psychologically. 36% of Americans reported anxiety or depression symptoms in July in a NCHS/Census survey. Calls to mental health helplines are up 891%. I have been compiling papers and articles on COVID-19 and mental health in a shared Google Doc which is getting longer and longer. The papers and articles about and by healthcare workers paint a picture of an increasingly desperate situation: “I can’t turn my brain off“, “I’m a Health Care Worker. You Need to Know How Close We Are to Breaking“, “We think of our physicians as invulnerable, but we’re putting them in untenable situations“, “Behind the stiff upper lip, we’re highly vulnerable“, “Health care workers aren’t just ‘heroes’. We’re also scared and exposed“, “I Couldn’t Do Anything.”

Sam saw this future coming early in the pandemic, and he motivated us all to something about it. The Heroes Health Initiative is now being piloted at Sam’s home hospital, UNC Health in Chapel Hill, just four months after our first call.

Today we are announcing the rollout of the Heroes Health initiative across the US. Healthcare workers and first responders can now download the Heroes Health app from the Google Play Store and Apple Store free of charge, regardless of whether their institution is taking part in the initiative. For individuals, the app displays symptom summary reports to help them better understand the state of their own mental health and changes over time. The app also provides links to immediate support and mental health resources, emphasising free and low-cost services. 

I am grateful to Sam McLean and his team for giving me the opportunity to contribute to such an amazing project, to our funders, and to the Google and X volunteers who said “Yes” and brought this project to life: Anne-Carlijn Reijrink, Chris Tirrell, Cynthia Horiguchi, Jamie Rogers, Jesus Trujillo Gomez, Katie Link, Kar Epker, Kit Yee Au-Yeung, Nicole DeSantis, Ola Spyra, Pramod Gupta, Qiumin Xu, Stephanie Wilson, Vlad Miskovic, William Mills, Yvonne Yip, Yu-Chi Kuo, Zohreh Jabbari and so many others. We have handed over the app to the UNC team who will manage it going forward. Our immediate work is done, but we are all excited to stay in touch with the project and can’t wait to see its impact.

As for me, Sam and I are already thinking about how we can roll out Heroes Health internationally.

We need your help!

  1. Help spread the word about the Heroes Health InitiativePost about it on your social media. If you know any first responders and healthcare workers in the US, encourage them to join. If you know administrators or executives at first responder and healthcare organisations, tell them about it.
  2. Help us fundraise: We need further funds to bring Heroes Health to more organisations in the US and beyond. You can donate on the Heroes Health fundraising page. If you know a foundation who might be interested to fund the Heroes Health Initiative, please message me on LinkedIn – we would love an introduction.

Visit UNC’s website to learn more.

#heroeshealth #mentalhealth #SupportHealthcareHeroes #ThanksHealthHero #Breakthestigma