She returned to work in the emergency department on April 1. The stress and workload had only mounted while she was sick, but she could no longer pull from her legendary energy reserves. Lorna was scheduled to work nine 12-hour shifts in a row, and she stayed late every day. A relentless stream of flashing ambulances delivered COVID-19 patients to the hospital. Sleep eluded her. Jennifer and Corey were very worried about Lorna—they could hear the deepening distress in her voice.
Explore This IssueACEP Now: Vol 39 – No 09 – September 2020
The Stigma Trap
Months after Lorna’s suicide, Corey reflected on the cascading events that led to the Breens deciding to shine a light on one of the darkest topics during their family’s darkest hours. He explained that they initially fell into the same trap as most families who lose a loved one to suicide—they wanted to stay silent to avoid the stigma associated with it.
They may have remained silent, but the Times article put them on the spot. The Breens were caught in a stigma standoff. On the one hand, suicide stigma implores you to stay quiet about your tragedy. Keeping your secret means you don’t have to answer unwanted questions and relive your tragedy over and over again. The unbearable grief and pain? Stigma says keep it to yourself.
On the other hand, what about the stigma Lorna faced as a health care hero on the front lines of COVID-19? She witnessed unimaginable suffering as the COVID-19 losses piled up, but she was trained to never show weakness. And what about the stigma that persists in medicine that says it isn’t OK to sit down and take a break? The stigma that prevents health care workers from seeking crisis support because they’re worried it will affect their licensure and career prospects?
In the blink of an eye, they had to make a decision about how to move forward and honor Lorna’s legacy. Once the family decided to share their story, they set a movement in motion.
The first thing the Breen family did was set up the Lorna Breen Heroes’ Fund to provide mental health support to health care professionals. Soon that grew into a foundation dedicated to protecting and preserving the wellbeing of health care workers while destigmatizing mental health support for clinicians. The Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation has told her story to many audiences over the last three months, furthering its mission to prioritize the protection and well-being of health care workers while breaking down barriers that prevent clinicians from seeking mental health support.