Opinion: Health care workers need more mental health support

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacted a dramatic mental health toll on health care workers, including Lorna Breen, a physician and director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, who committed suicide earlier this year, according to a September 16, 2020 Boston Globe op-ed.

The op-ed, co-authored by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams and Jennifer Breen Feist and J. Corey Feist—Breen’s sister and brother-in-law, respectively—noted that health care providers have experienced a 60% increase in emotional exhaustion and high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder since the onset of the pandemic in March. Even before that, the profession was struggling with high rates of burnout and mental health challenges, according to the authors.

They noted that Breen spent weeks treating COVID-19 patients, contracted the disease herself, and then rushed back to work the moment she was cleared to do so.

“On National Physician Suicide Awareness Day on Thursday, we are mobilizing in Lorna’s memory to break the silence surrounding physician mental health. Other clinicians need to hear that their burden of stress, overwork, anxiety, or depression is one that is frequently shared with their colleagues,” the authors wrote. “And the health care community needs to realize that admitting fatigue, asking for help, or simply taking a break to cope with loss or prevent burnout is a courageous act.”

The article noted that Breen’s family has established the Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation to promote the well-being of all health care providers and that Congress has introduced the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act to bring effective, evidence-based mental health resources to health care providers.

“Americans have cheered our health care heroes and have made joyful noise to acknowledge their sacrifices, but expressions of gratitude are not enough,” the authors wrote. “Let’s get the health care providers who give so much of themselves the support they truly deserve—let’s encourage elected leaders to pass the Dr. Lorna Health Care Provider Protection Act now.”

Read the Boston Globe article: Family of ER doctor who died by suicide: ‘Honor physicians with mental health support’

Learn more

Leading health care organizations declare physician burnout as ‘public health crisis’ (Harvard Chan School press release)

Op-ed: Changes necessary to curb physician burnout (Harvard Chan School news)