Raising Awareness Around Mental Health in the Medical Community: The Impact of the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been hearing about the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on our collective mental health. This crisis has become so dire that in his first State of the Union address, President Biden took the time to highlight the unprecedented mental health needs of the American people. 

Some of the statistics he highlighted include:

  • 2 out of every 5 adults report symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • More than 50% of parents express concern about their child’s mental well-being
  • Emergency room visits for attempted suicide have risen by 51% among adolescent girls

While these statistics are dire, the outcomes facing healthcare professionals are worse. Healthcare providers who have been working throughout the pandemic to treat the cascading waves of cases and the accompanying mental health crisis are burning out at record rates. While rates of mental illness, burnout, and suicide were significant in healthcare before the pandemic, they are now undeniably worse.

Tracking Burnout Among Healthcare Workers

The term ‘burnout’ was first applied to healthcare workers in 1974. Since then, there has been intense debate about what qualifies as burnout and how to measure it accurately. Typically, it’s defined as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

Despite varying opinions around this topic, researchers agree that burnout rates among healthcare workers are critically high, with one meta-analysis suggesting an average rate of 35.7% across all specialties.

Before a diagnosis of burnout, it’s not uncommon for individuals to feel extreme stress and be unable to sleep. Some people become sad, angry, or irritable, and misuse substances like drugs and alcohol to cope. In some cases, burnout can contribute to suicidal ideation or lead to suicide itself. Especially within the last two years, healthcare workers have experienced elevated rates of suicide with more than 400 physicians dying by suicide each year.

Remembering Dr. Lorna Breen

One of the most public cases of suicide impacting the healthcare profession involved Dr. Lorna Breen, a young and vibrant emergency room doctor who worked at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, NY. Dr. Breen had been working long and stressful 12+ hour shifts at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she began feeling overwhelmed. The hospital had insufficient supplies, too few beds, and not enough help, leaving patients to die in the waiting rooms and hallways. Sleep was at a premium, and the magnitude and responsibility of caring for COVID patients around the clock was immense. 

Though it could have benefitted her greatly, Dr. Breen never sought mental health services, because she was worried that seeking out mental health care could jeopardize her medical license. As it turns out, licensing boards throughout the country require disclosure of any current or past mental health care by physicians, and hospitals require these same disclosures for credentialing. Unimaginable as it may be, seeking mental health care is considered a sign of weakness among some medical professionals, so many forego care they desperately need.

Dr. Breen died by suicide on April 26th, 2020. In the days following her death, her family established the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, with the mission of reducing burnout among healthcare workers and advocating for better mental health care within the profession.  

The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act

One of the most significant accomplishments of the new Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation is the passage of The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act (HR 1667). This bipartisan bill was created with the intent of strengthening and expanding behavioral health initiatives among healthcare workers, especially those providing care to COVID-19 patients.

The legislation is backed by more than 70 well-respected medical, health, and public service organizations, including:

  • The American Academy of Emergency Medicine
  • The American Medical Association
  • The American College of Emergency Physicians
  • The American College of Physicians
  • The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention
  • The American Nurses Association
  • Mental Health America

The act was passed by the U.S. Senate on February 17th, 2022, and is expected to be signed by President Biden soon.

Why is this New Legislation so Important for Healthcare Providers?

Within this legislation, there are various measures, grants, and funding opportunities intended to bolster the mental health resources and infrastructure available to healthcare workers. Some of the most impactful measures include:

  • The establishment of grants for training healthcare workers in evidence-informed strategies to reduce the impact of mental illness, suicide, and burnout
  • The establishment of a national evidence-based education and awareness campaign that will encourage healthcare workers to seek treatment for all behavioral health concerns
  • Grants for mental and behavioral healthcare for physician and healthcare workers, with prioritized access for those in current or former COVID-19 hotspots
  • The establishment of a comprehensive study to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental and behavioral health of healthcare workers

The impact of these measures proposed in the act cannot be understated. Like Dr. Breen, many doctors and healthcare workers serving the public today remain in fear of professional or personal retaliation or judgment if they disclose that they need mental or behavioral health treatment.

By bringing these issues out into the open and making them public, the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation and the sponsors of this bill are creating a more hopeful and positive working environment for our healthcare workers.

Although the financial, educational, and awareness goals set out in this legislation are lofty and have not yet been implemented, their institution will offer front-line and clinical healthcare workers unprecedented support for their mental and emotional health needs.

Moving Towards a More Mentally Healthy Future

Since 2020, the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation has been saying: “If this can happen to Lorna, this can happen to any healthcare provider.” If we do not care for our fellow healthcare providers, we will soon face an even larger collective crisis, resulting in poor patient outcomes and loss of life. Thankfully, the passage of this new act offers hope for a more mentally healthy future.

It’s time to prioritize mental health for those who dedicate their lives to helping others. To take action and support healthcare workers’ mental health and well-being, visit the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation website.

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