Congress must pass The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act

Upon receiving his COVID-19 vaccine, President-elect Biden praised front-line health care workers and declared, “we owe you big.” Congress can start to repay this debt by passing the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. Named for the New York physician who took her own life after working for months treating COVID patients and seeing far too many die, the bill provides funding for mental and behavioral health awareness, education, and treatment for our health care providers in order to reduce and prevent their alarmingly high rates of suicide, burnout, substance use disorders, and other psychologically-related conditions.

As many predicted since the onset of the pandemic, mental health issues are surging among health care professionals. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that among some 1,250 medical professionals working with COVID-19 patients in China, more than 50 percent reported symptoms of depression, nearly 45 percent noted symptoms of anxiety, and over seven in 10 reported distress. Buttressing these findings, researchers in Canada discovered that the prevalence of PTSD among nurses was as high as 40 percent. And in the first national study of its size, researchers at the University of California-San Diego confirmed that nurses are at a significantly higher risk of suicide than the average person, while other research has shown that physicians die by suicide at a higher rate – about 1.5 times – than the general population (Suicide among physicians and health-care workers: A systematic review and meta-analysis (plos.org).

Exacerbating matters is the fact that medical professionals, and particularly physicians, may turn to self-medication to manage their mental health problems. This includes excessive alcohol consumption and opioid usage. It is estimated that 10 percent-15 percent of all medical professionals in the U.S. will misuse drugs or alcohol at some point during their career and medical professionals are more likely to abuse prescription medications despite their unique understanding of the potential consequences.

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The sad fact is that the valiant men and women fighting to save lives during this pandemic are in a war against an insidious adversary and are coming home with invisible psychological and emotional scars. So the Dr. Lorna Breen Act is not only necessary, but the absolute right first step to help them cope and continue to save lives, including their own.

Until it is fully implemented, however, we need to take immediate action. Having worked with populations prone to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as veterans, mass shooting survivors, and 9/11 first responders, we, and others in the health care community, know that if not identified early and treated comprehensively, the mental health challenges our medical professionals are facing will become chronic, life altering, and deadly.

We know, for example, that long-term outcomes are improved with the help of community connections and ongoing access to mental health support. This is where each of us can make a difference. Asking our friends, neighbors, and peers who are on the front lines direct questions about difficult thoughts and feelings gives us all permission to be human and heal from the stress and trauma of this pandemic together. Resources such as the Columbia Protocol, a simple suicide prevention tool that anyone can use, are already at our fingertips. With even wider implementation, we can support health care professionals before they are in crisis.

It is important to note that despite the trauma, grief and feelings of anxiety that doctors, nurses, and other front-line responders are currently experiencing, there is hope. We in the mental health community use the term “post-traumatic growth” to help understand how individuals “come out on the other side” of trauma stronger than when it started. As humans we can learn how to grow, reach out for help when we need it most, and how to support one another. Together with passage of the Dr. Lorna Breen Act, this will carry us — both front line medical professionals and the general population — now and through the long road ahead to a better future.

Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, is director and founder of the Columbia Lighthouse Project. Dr. Keita Franklin, former director of suicide prevention for the Department of Defense and VA, is the co-director of the Columbia Lighthouse Project.