On March 18, 2022, President Biden signed new legislation designed specifically to help address the increasing incidence of healthcare professionals’ mental health problems and related suicides.
The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to “award grants to hospitals, medical professional associations, and other health care entities for programs to promote mental health and resiliency among health care providers. Additionally, the legislation notes that the HHS may award grants for relevant mental and behavioral health training for health care students, residents, or professionals.” Furthermore, the legislation directs the HHS to conduct a campaign intended to encourage healthcare workers to “seek support and treatment for mental and behavioral health concerns” and for the agency “to disseminate best practices to prevent suicide and improve mental health and resiliency among health care providers.”
Dr. Lorna Breen
Dr. Lorna Breen was an emergency room physician serving at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital in Upper Manhattan. There, she was among the often-cited heroic frontline healthcare workers before there were any vaccines or testing, and personal protection equipment was in extremely low supply, diminishing quickly. All around her, besides the patients coming in ill, her fellow doctors and nurses were also becoming infected with the virus. Dr. Breen too would ultimately contract COVID-19, but like many other healthcare professionals, upon recovering, she returned to the hospital, once again, to help others.
High Rates of Suicide among Healthcare Professionals
Even before the pandemic, healthcare professionals were prone to high levels of stress, burnout, fatigue and depression. This is not difficult to understand given their long hours and continuous exposure to human suffering and death. For Dr. Breen, and many others, it became just too much. On April 26, 2020, Dr. Breen committed suicide.
A 2019 Statista study found that 22% of Millennial physicians, 24% of Generation X physicians, and 21% of Baby Boomer physicians had thoughts of suicide, but had not attempted it. The American College of Emergency Physicians found that approximately 300-400 physicians commit suicide each year in the U.S., with suicides 250-400% higher among female physicians when compared to females in other professions. And physicians are not the only healthcare professionals committing suicide at high rates. A study by Matthew Davis, an associate professor in the Department of Systems, Population and Leadership at the University of Michigan, found that the suicide incidence among nurses was at a rate of 17.1 per 100,000, compared to 8.6 per 100,000 among American women as a whole, or approximately twice as high.
Making Resources Available
With the passage of the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, more resources will be available to hospitals, medical professional associations, and other health care entities to address this pervasive problem with relevant mental health and behavioral health training for health care professionals at all stages of their careers, from health care students to medical residents and all practicing professionals.