Dr. Lorna Breen's Family: Doctors Shouldn't Be 'Punished' for Seeking Support
'We’re asking these professionals to take care of us, but when they need help for their mental health , they’re punished for it.'
.You’ve worked in health care yourself for over 20 years and for the past 15 years as the CEO of a physician group at the University of Virginia. Given your expertise in the industry, what was your awareness level about this issue before April 2020?For the last four years, I’d been hearing an increasing drumbeat from our physicians about burnout. They talked about the changing environment of health care expectations, and they were saying, “Practicing medicine is no longer what we signed up for. It’s moving away from the patient care we wanted. That’s burning us out.” We’ve been addressing that, but there’s much more complexity about stigma that I didn’t realize.
What are the factors increasing stigma around mental-health care?Until Lorna’s death, when we began to look at this issue, I had no idea about the cultural issues embedded in health care around not being able to take a break or seek care. Stigma is enforced on a structural level. For example, in many states, you have to disclose whether you’ve sought mental-health services as part of your licensing, and many doctors are hesitant to get help because they believe it could put their career at risk, and they’re right. It’s hypocritical. We’re asking these professionals to take care of us, but when they need help for their mental health, they’re punished for it. I’m not trying to be dramatic—that’s where we are.
Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ FoundationThere’s been greater attention this past year to burnout in the profession. Do you think that’s helping at all?I think it’s important to clarify that burnout is not a mental-health condition; it’s a workplace condition. So, the solutions for that are to improve operations and decrease administrative burdens. Contrast that with a mental-health diagnosis like PTSD, which is the issue my sister-in-law had following her battle on the COVID front lines. That’s the challenge facing an entire workforce now. That means it’s helpful to reduce burnout, but that’s far from enough. headtopics.com
How has COVID, and the death of Dr. Breen and other doctors, played a role in current perceptions?There have been so many powerful stories and images, like nurses holding up iPads so family members can say goodbye. That’s leading to more awareness of what they’re going through. And we hear from doctors and nurses in our work that talking about Lorna’s suicide has made a difference for them. So, this isn’t just about how people are recognizing the needs of health care professionals. It’s also about how they’re recognizing it for themselves.
How is the work of the foundation, as well as legislation that’s working its way through Congress, offering some hope?We already have $120 million of programs in place for current health care professionals and future health care workers that will provide training about recognition of
and how to prevent and treat them. No one’s ever done this before—this is first-of-its-kind stuff—and we’re hoping to scale solutions across the country.We don’t need more banners about health care heroes, and we don’t need more freemeditationapps for them. We need real solutions that work for people like Lorna. She was the canary in the coal mine for us, and for many people. We don’t need to make our canaries stronger. We need to redesign the coal mine.
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