The second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked retrospectives and tallies of all sorts – in number of COVID-19 cases, deaths, and people with long COVID symptoms, as well as the excess mortality from all causes during the pandemic.
One elusive number, however, is the number of healthcare workers and physicians who died by suicide over the last couple years. On average, 300 – 400 physicians die by suicide every year. But we all know that the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike anything we have faced in our generation, and that number is likely higher. Following the loss of Dr. Laura Breen who was medical director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital to suicide, a grassroots effort to improve physician well-being was amplified by national advocacy efforts, and The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act was signed into law last week by President Biden.
This bill is backed by a $35 million appropriation over three years, dispersed to a broad scope of programs. Some funds will be awarded to educational efforts to encourage treatment and reduce the stigma of mental health and substance use disorders among healthcare professionals and other funds may be used to directly establish or enhance direct treatment programs or peer support programs. There is an associated directive, that in the next two years, the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall identify and disseminate best practices related to preventing suicide and improving mental health among healthcare professionals.
While in my opinion, the language of the act does little to shed light on or target the root systemic causes of the mental health crisis among healthcare workers, it does put the money and thus the solutions directly in the hands of the stakeholders. The grants are to be awarded specifically to hospitals, community health centers, rural health clinics, and medical professional associations. Many problems in healthcare boil down to dollars and cents, and this money could be a direct investment in physician well-being. Can we as a Medical Society use this opportunity to fund physician-directed initiatives? Let me know what meaningful change you would like to see put into action.
If you or a colleague is struggling with mental health or unhealthy substance use, please reach out – to a friend, a colleague, me or our confidential NH Professionals Health Program medical director, Dr. Molly Rossignol. It’s okay to not feel okay, and we should strive to do away with any stigma to the contrary within our community.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
Dr. Eric Kropp
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