The U.S. government took an important step forward to help address the high incidence of health care professionals’ burnout, depression, and suicides. On March 18, 2022, President Biden signed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act into law. The law outlines several requirements for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Key among them are to:
- “Award grants to hospitals, medical professional associations, and other health care entities for programs to promote mental health and resilience among health care providers”
- “Award grants for relevant mental and behavioral health training for health care students, residents, or professionals”
- Develop and implement an awareness campaign to encourage health care professionals to “seek support and treatment for mental and behavioral health concerns”
- “Disseminate best practices to prevent suicide and improve mental health and resiliency among health care providers.”
Who was Dr. Lorna Breen?
Dr. Lorna Breen was a well-respected emergency department (ED) physician at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital located in Manhattan. Dr. Breen was one of those frontline heroes we heard so much about during the peak of the pandemic. She was in the ED helping the streaming number of patients infected with COVID-19 before vaccines were available and when personal protection equipment was in dangerously low supply. Besides the usual incoming patients in the ED, these COVID-19 patients were putting all of the doctors and nurses at high risk. As a result, many also became infected with the virus. Working long hours under these perilous conditions made even the most resilient professionals, more exhausted and stressed than ever.
When Dr. Breen too contracted the virus, she quarantined at home as required. Right after she recovered, she was back at the hospital helping others. Sadly, the weight of the pandemic, the longer than ever hours, and day after day exposure to so much loss of life took its toll on Dr. Breen, who took her own life on April 26, 2020.
Suicides among health care professionals
Dr. Breen is not alone among her peers in considering and even committing suicide. I can speak from personal experience as someone who attempted suicide. As a lifelong stutterer, and one who also has battled obsessive-compulsive tendencies and depression for decades, and struggled with each of my patients who I was unable to help, I know what it feels like to reach that level of despair.
A study conducted by Statista in 2019 supports the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and acts among health care professionals. Statista found that 22 percent of Millennial physicians, 24 percent of Generation X physicians, and 21 percent of Baby Boomer physicians had thoughts of suicide but had not attempted it. Other studies also shed light on this pervasive problem.
In its report, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) found that 300 to 400 physicians commit suicide in the U.S. each year. In addition, the ACEP’s study noted that suicides are 250 percent to 400 percent higher among female physicians in comparison to females in other professions.
Along with physicians, other health care professionals too suffer from high rates of suicides. Matthew Davis, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Systems, Population and Leadership, conducted a study which found that the suicides among nurses were at a rate of 17.1 per 100,000 nurses, which is over twice as much as the 8.6 per 100,000 among American women as a whole.
The path to mental and physical well-being
For many health care professionals, the stresses of their roles routinely take a heavy toll on their mental and physical well-being. It did for me. The pandemic and the unprecedented loss of life were more overwhelming than any of us could have imagined, and for some, it simply pushed them over the edge. But, even before the pandemic, our peers have been suffering from depression, anxiety, and exhaustion and needed resources to help them better cope and manage their well-being. For me, I learned the path to a healthier, more balanced, and purposeful life. I took up ultra-running, which has helped me enormously. I also developed strategies and tactics that I can rely on to keep me on an even keel, even when things get extra challenging. My journey is what inspired me to write a book and share what I have learned with others. The resources which will now be made available as a result of the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act are vital to supporting more health care professionals. Many medical associations are applauding the new legislation. We as medical professionals should not hesitate to avail ourselves of any and all resources designed to help us improve our mental and physical well-being so we can continue to help and heal others.
Anthony Avellino is a pediatric neurosurgeon and the author of Finding Purpose: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey of Hope and Healing.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com