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Advocating for Healthcare Professionals' Mental Health: A Call to Action this Mental Health Awareness Month

May 27, 2021

By Jennifer Lee, OMS-IV, Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine - New York

Jennifer Lee_250pxwAs my friends and classmates celebrate the final few weeks of medical school, I find myself preoccupied. I recently learned of a resident and an attending colleague who died by suicide. Sadly, this is not a rare occurrence. There is a mental health crisis among healthcare professionals and students that has been growing for decades and is expected to worsen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, as we close out the month of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, I hope that you will consider supporting the health and wellness of current and future frontline workers by urging Congress to sign on to the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act.

During my time as an AACOM Osteopathic Health Policy Intern, I had the opportunity to research mental health in medicine, and learned that the pattern of suicide among healthcare professionals completely defies that of the general population.

The top risk factor for suicide in the general US population is the lack of a social support network; those who take their lives are more likely to be single and to have recently experienced the death of a close friend or family member. Physicians who have died by suicide, however, tend to have a support system in place, and are more likely to be married at the time of their passing. The top risk factors for suicide among physicians and medical students are moral injury and burnout.

Moral injury results from the difficult decisions that physicians have to make in caring for very sick patients on a day-to-day basis. This has never been more difficult than through the COVID-19 pandemic. I have noticed a consistent trend among my physician friends, colleagues and mentors who have compromised their own personal safety to put their patients first. One physician friend told me she “just wants to go one day without losing a COVID patient.” She ended up battling COVID herself, and struggled with guilt, worrying that her work in the hospital meant she had exposed her family.

The public gratitude being shown to healthcare professionals is tremendous, but the public should not lose sight of the fact that we are all still human and in need of the same care as everyone else. As encouraging as it was to see certain mental health support provisions for healthcare workers included in the American Rescue Plan, that is just the beginning. The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act aims to reduce and prevent mental and behavioral health conditions among healthcare professionals. On May 25, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee advanced this vital legislation. Please join me in advocating for this bill. It is time to take care of the physicians and other healthcare professionals who have been taking care of us.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (Español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.