Editor’s Note: Jennifer Breen Feist is Dr. Breen’s sister and a co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation. Corey Feist is Dr. Breen’s brother-in-law and a health care executive with over 20 years of experience. He is a co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation and chief executive officer of the University of Virginia Physicians Group. Dr. Bill Cassidy is a Republican senator from Louisiana. Tim Kaine is a Democratic senator from Virginia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit nearly every facet of people’s lives but especially Americans’ mental health, including among frontline health care workers.
Dr. Lorna Breen was a talented physician who served as the medical director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital. A native of Charlottesville, Virginia, she was devoted to her family, her work and her patients.
In November 2019, she coauthored the article, “Clinician Burnout and its Association with Team-Based Care in the Emergency Department,” in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. “Recent work has noted the alarming prevalence of clinician burnout among providers, particularly among acute care physicians,” they wrote. “Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness, which may lead to feelings of depersonalization and reduced accomplishment.”
The article described ways to mitigate the impacts of stress on staff and also improve patient outcomes. Just a few months after this piece was published, the stress felt by health care professionals like Dr. Breen was compounded by their battle against Covid-19.
During the spring, her emergency department was forced to operate at three times its usual patient load when it was inundated by Covid cases.
“People I work with are so confused by all the mixed messages and constantly changing instructions,” Dr. Breen wrote to her Bible study group. She eventually contracted the virus herself, and upon recovering, she returned to work at the hospital, where nearly a quarter of the admitted Covid patients died. She told a friend, “I couldn’t help anyone. I couldn’t do anything. I just wanted to help people and I couldn’t do anything.”
On April 26, Dr. Breen died by suicide, after staying for 11 days at a psychiatric hospital.
While her case drew national attention, her experience suffering from the emotional toll of her work is not uncommon in the medical field. Even before the strain of the pandemic, physicians had the highest rate of death by suicide of any profession in America and as many as 45-55% of health care workers have suffered from burnout. Some surveys taken before Covid-19 suggest burnout is 20-60% more prevalent among female physicians than male ones.
We understand that our society, including the medical profession itself, does not do nearly enough to recognize the significant cost that this work inflicts upon the mental health of our caregivers. That’s why we’ve worked together to introduce and support the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act to prevent tragedies like Dr. Breen’s.
Under this bill, academic health centers, medical and nursing schools, and state and local governments could receive grants to train health care students, residents and professionals in burnout- and suicide-prevention strategies. The legislation would also create an awareness campaign at the national level focused on health care workers to destigmatize the process of their finding support and treatment for mental health concerns.
Because of the higher levels of stress and burnout frontline health care workers are experiencing during Covid-19, the bill also specifically addresses the mental health challenges exacerbated or created in part by the pandemic. It would help study the impacts of Covid-19 on health care workers’ health. It also would allow grants for worker education, peer-support programming and mental and behavioral health treatment – focusing on locations with significant spikes in Covid-19 cases.
While Dr. Breen’s death is not counted among the more than 309,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the US, she was a victim of this virus. We must push for this legislation to ensure the immense mental health challenges of health care workers are acknowledged, that resources are available, and accessing those services is encouraged.
We’re mindful that there are so many priorities to be considered in the Covid relief legislation currently being negotiated, but we hope this bill is included to give health care workers the support they need. The mental health impacts of this pandemic won’t stop when cases fall. We must put in place a more robust infrastructure and culture for health care professionals to rely on for years to come.
How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.