The following is a summary of “The Pandemic’s Psychological Toll: An Emergency Physician’s Suicide” from the September issue of Annals of Emergency Medicine.
Explore This IssueACEP Now: Vol 39 – No 08 – August 2020
When COVID-19 hit New York this spring, the crisis swept away with it Lorna Breen, MD, clinical director of the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital in Manhattan. In late March, 49-year-old Dr. Breen became sick with the virus and never gave herself a complete break from work even while she tried to recuperate. Despite not seeming fully recovered, according to her family, Dr. Breen promptly returned to her 200-bed hospital—which, at times, had as many as 170 COVID patients. There, she faced horrors unlike any she’d experienced in her long medical career. “The scene was overwhelming,” her sister reports. “People were dying everywhere. There weren’t enough oxygen hook-ups, so they were using tanks, but the tanks would run out of oxygen, and patients would die waiting to be seen.” Dr. Breen, who had no history of mental health problems, killed herself on April 26.
The pandemic has exacerbated an existing problem: Physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession, and the stigma about seeking help remains high among doctors, even while studies indicate that those on the COVID front lines are at elevated risk for depression, anxiety, insomnia, and psychological distress. Experts suggest that peer debriefing sessions help, along with providing adequate personal protective equipment and ensuring physicians feel appreciated. Some argue that licensing boards should stop asking about mental health diagnoses and treatments. On March 30, a group of psychiatrists founded the Physician Support Line, a confidential hotline (888-409-0141) that provides free psychiatric support for doctors. ACEP members have access to 24/7 wellness support via phone, text, or online chat at acep.org/support. More free counseling and peer support options are listed at acep.org/wellness-hub.
Ms. Kelly is a special contributor to Annals “News & Perspective.”
ACEP strongly supports S. 4349, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, introduced in the Senate July 29. Learn more about it and other ACEP-supported bills that prioritize physician mental health.