Overwhelmed by the number of coronavirus patients who died on her watch, Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency medicine physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital, took her own life. Tragically, her dedication and despair pushed her past the breaking point.
“She tried to do her job, and it killed her,” Dr. Philip Breen, her father, told The New York Times. Of all occupations and professions, physicians are among the top occupations with the highest risk of death by suicide. Not only today, but before this crisis as well.
On the other side of this pandemic, some of us will remain anxious and distressed long after others have gotten back to “normal.” “Normal,” in this case, is largely an illusion, says Austin, Texas psychiatrist Thomas Kim, M.D.
“We will be bruised and scarred as a result of this pandemic. Those that get up off the mat will be the ones who are OK, and not everyone will find themselves in that group.”
Some physicians will be anxious and depressed for a while; it will take courage to move forward again. Relying on one another will help hasten recovery.
Unfortunately, one of the hardest things for a physician to do is to ask their medical colleagues for help during times of emotional distress. It’s simply not part of most physicians’ DNA to reveal that they, too, like their patients, are vulnerable to episodes of anxiety and depression. Deeply ingrained in the culture of becoming and being a physician is the idea that physicians are not supposed to show signs of weakness during adversity.
“The key takeaway here,” says Dr. Kim, “is that you do not have to do this alone.”
Long-term, this pandemic may be an opportunity to rid the medical profession of the stigma that’s been tied to physician anxiety and depression. Reaching out for help when experiencing emotional distress, says Dr. Kim, should not be seen as a character failing. Instead, it should be seen as an act of bravery.
“Once we see ourselves in each other, we will be better and stronger for it.”
If we remember the lessons learned from this pandemic, a brighter future will be ours to share.