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Seeking help, mental health services: 'A sign of strength'

Posted at 11:27 AM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 13:53:23-04

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Dr. Lorna Breen dedicated her career to medicine. A graduate of Cornell University and VCU Medical School, she loved service to others and was living her dream in New York City.

“Lorna was amazing,” brother-in-law Corey Feist said. “She always wanted to be an emergency room doctor in Manhattan, her entire life.”

As a daughter, sister, and favorite aunt, Breen was the light of her family and always inspired loved ones to live life to the fullest. She played the cello, ran in marathons, and was an avid snowboarder.

“She was really at the pinnacle of her life and her career at this time last year,” Feist said.

But in March 2020, Breen returned home from a family ski vacation in Montana to be thrust into the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working as the ER Director at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, she contracted the virus but had little time to make a full recovery before returning to work.

“What we saw, she described to us as Armageddon. Death and dying on a volume and scale that had never been seen before by any of those seasoned physicians or nurses on the frontlines,” Feist said. “Patients were dying in waiting rooms. They ran out of places to put bodies.”

Overwhelmed and with little resources to treat patients, Breen’s mental health quickly deteriorated.

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By April, her family decided to intervene and bring her home to Charlottesville, Virginia for help. Despite brief treatment at a hospital, Breen died by suicide on April 26 in her mother’s home.

“In a three-week period of time this happened to my sister-in-law,” Feist said. “She had no suspected or known history of mental health challenges or diagnosis. She had no history of depression, she had no history of anxiety.”

Within days of Breen’s suicide, the pubic outcry was overwhelming.

Hundreds of healthcare workers reached out to the Breen family with similar stories, describing years of industry burnout before the pandemic. They explained that COVID had only intensified problems for healthcare workers.

“We’re going to be dealing with the manifestations of PTSD and other depression and mental health diagnosis for a long time to come and some of it hasn’t even appeared yet,” Feist said.

In July, Senator Tim Kaine (D - Virginia) delivered an emotional plea to Congress, proposing the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Act to change policies and give healthcare workers access to mental health services.

In virtual roundtable discussions with several healthcare workers across Virginia, Kaine listened to stories of struggle.

“We’re trying to deal with family members and support our patients and support each other,” said one nurse. “We’re also experiencing loneliness and being isolated from our families and our communities.”

Studies show that many healthcare workers feared speaking out because of the stigma associated with mental health and the potential for job or licensing loss.

Breen’s family said they quickly realized Lorna’s suicide wasn’t an isolated case.

“What we learned in a very short period of time is before the pandemic, 400 doctors per year were dying by suicide in this country, pre-pandemic. It was such a bigger issue than just one person that we could not be quiet,” Feist said.

Breen’s family has since established the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation to shed light on policies in hospitals across the country that contribute to burnout and silent suffering.

The foundation celebrated a big milestone with the passage of the American Rescue Plan by Congress. It contains $140 million in funding for the Lorna Breen Act providing mental health support to healthcare workers.

While sharing Lorna’s story has been difficult, Breen’s family said they would continue to honor her life and legacy through her foundation.

“And working to envision this world where asking for help and seeking mental health services is universally viewed as a sign of strength,” Feist said. “They’ve put in the hard work and they’ve done everything and beyond what we could have possibly asked for as a society.”

The segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.