Dr Breen’s Suicide: Let’s Talk About Health Care Workers’ Mental Health
“She was in the trenches. She was a hero,” said Dr Lorna Breen’s father who lost his daughter to the self-inflicted injuries in New York. Dr Lorna Breen, 49, was a top emergency room doctor in New York. She risked her life to save the coronavirus patients in the hardest-hit state of America. However, she committed suicide on Sunday after being overwhelmed by the stress and exhaustion of fighting against the pandemic, risking her own life and still failing to save the lives of the patients. Reportedly, she was diagnosed as COVID-19 positive and was in quarantine for a week and a half. Later, she joined back the hospital to serve the patients. However, she could not cope with the harsh working conditions and so was sent back home where she committed suicide.
Dr Lorna Breen was one of the many health workers who are working at the frontline to save the patients of COVID-19. This is despite the fact that their close contact with the patients poses a high risk to their own lives. It is only because of their sacrifice and efforts that many patients have recovered and walked out of the hospitals happily. Many nurses and doctors like Dr Shirin Rouhani of Iran have lost their lives to novel coronavirus infection and left behind a benchmark of selfless service and devotion towards duty. They have truly emerged as the martyred warriors of the most dangerous global war.
Health care Workers More Vulnerable To Mental Illness
Though Dr Breen did not die due to the virus infection, it is even more painful that she lost her life to a mental health illness caused by the horror of the pandemic. Her death shows how fighting against the pandemic from the frontline has made the health workers more vulnerable. According to the National Institutes of Health, around 300 physicians commit suicide every year due to stress caused by mental illness, workload and physical and emotional exhaustion, and that number will only go up during the pandemic.
WHO has officially recognized psychological distress and fatigue as one of the hazards caused to the health workers in the battle against COVID-19. They are the ones who are witnessing the horror of the pandemic directly. Treating the patients at their own risk, seeing them and even their colleagues battle the deadly virus and many succumbing to it. No doubt it is a struggle that only people with brave hearts can go through.
Health workers cannot stay back at home like us, practice social distancing and save themselves and their families. They have to leave their families behind and work knowing that if they test positive and get admitted in the hospital they will be separated from their families. According to the WHO, in some countries, around 10 per cent of the health workers are infected by the virus. In China, 3,300 health care workers were infected in early March.
Besides, the horror, helplessness and uncertainty the shortage of PPEs and the reported cases of harassment and violent attacks on health workers add to the stress that they have to deal with every day.
What Can We Do?
We cannot even fathom the pressure under which the health workers are operating currently. But what we can do is extend our support by ensuring their safety. We need to make sure that enough PPEs and other safety measures are provided for the health workers. It is high time that the health workers should be protected from the additional fear and pressure of being evacuated, harassed and attacked. And the last and the most important, we should not undermine the psychological struggle of the health workers. We should pay equal respect and salute the doctors and nurses who suffer and die because of mental illness as we do for those who succumb to the deadly virus. We need to remember that if we lose any of the health workers whether to the virus or to depression, there will be one less person who is ready to devote his/her life to save ours. In the words of Dr Breen’s father, “Make sure she is praised as a hero. She is a casualty just as much as anyone else who died.”
The views expressed are the author’s own.