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New York ER Doctor Who Treated COVID-19 Patients Dies by Suicide

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Dr. Lorna M. Breen, who worked in a New York emergency room and treated COVID-19 patients, died by suicide on Sunday, according to the New York Times. Breen’s father confirmed the news in an interview.

Breen worked as the medical director of the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital. New York is the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., with more than 288,000 confirmed cases and more than 22,000 deaths. Breen’s father, Dr. Philip C. Breen, told the Times his daughter got COVID-19, recovered and went back to work for a short time before being sent home again. She traveled to Virginia to stay with family before her death.

Breen’s father said she didn’t have a prior history of mental illness. Breen told her family about the difficult conditions in her emergency room because of COVID-19. According to the Times, 59 patients had died at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital as of April 7. Plagued by a lack of resources, fear for loved ones and grueling hours, multiple experts have started highlighting the major mental health toll the COVID-19 pandemic has on health care workers.

One study published in JAMA Network Open surveyed more than 1,200 health care workers in China to gauge the mental health impact of working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak. Clinicians who provided direct COVID-19 patient care had much higher rates of severe mental health symptoms, including depression, anxiety and other psychological distress. Health care workers need additional mental health support.

“A national discussion is emerging about health care workers’ concerns about infection, exposure of family members, sick colleagues, shortages of necessary personal protective equipment, overwhelmed facilities and work stress,” wrote the authors of a JAMA Psychiatry viewpoint article. “This special population deserves support and prevention services.”

There isn’t evidence that COVID-19 played a direct role in Breen’s suicide. Suicide is complex and is almost never attributable to a singular cause. Regardless, Breen’s father wants to make sure his daughter is remembered as one of the thousands of health care heroes risking their well-being to help others.

“She tried to do her job, and it killed her,” Philip Breen said. “She was truly in the trenches of the front line. Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died.”

If this news is hard for you, know you are not alone — and there is help for people who feel suicidal. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world. For COVID-19 mental health resources, head here.

Originally published: April 27, 2020
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