Mental Challenges

The Suicide Deaths of Health-Care Workers During COVID-19 Should Be a Wake-up Call for Everyone

Drew Ramsey, MD

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As of May 26, 2020, there have been 98,261 deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there is another aspect of this pandemic that is concerning to all: deaths by suicide, particularly among front-line workers who are faced with the virus’s realities every day. Here, psychiatrist and Well+Good Council member Drew Ramsey, MD, shares why it’s vital the deaths of ER physician Lorna Breen, EMT John Mondello, and others not be overlooked.

The sad and scary reality of COVID-19—the fear and anxiety for one’s health, the loss of friends and loved ones—is something we’re all collectively experiencing, but it’s truly something health-care workers on the front lines can’t escape due to the very nature of their jobs. The sacrifice of these heroes is honored in the free meals communities across the country rally to give, the 7 p.m. cheering that happens every single night without fail in New York City, prayers and vigils, and the #SupportHealthcareHeroes hashtag on social media.

This recognition is absolutely deserved, but the truth is that even before COVID-19 hit, physicians have long been one of the top professions at risk for suicide. When we think about what health-care workers are contending with now—the amount of stress, uncertainty, and fear—it reminds us that that risk of suicide was sadly always there. Because these jobs have always been filled with stress, uncertainty, and fear—it’s just now the public is paying attention.

There are a few factors making health-care workers susceptible to burnout and suicide that have been magnified during the COVID-19 crisis. While health care often comes with some level of risk and sacrifice, my colleagues on the front lines are being exposed to a level of mass loss that hasn’t been experienced in recent memory. The tremendous amount of death can put a huge strain on the health-care workers striving to keep those who are sick alive.

Second, folks who go into health care are very motivated by doing good in the world. Many can grind through months and years of not getting a lot of gratitude and, in some cases, respect, so long as they have the gratification of caring for their patients. But as the pandemic wears on, and more and more people die, that sense of meaning can be harder for people to find.

The recent deaths by suicide of Lorna Breen and others are proof that health-care workers need more mental health support, period. There’s still so much fear and stigma about getting help for your mental health that all people face, including health experts themselves. Many health professionals worry that if they come forward about their mental health, their licenses will be suspended or revoked—concerns that the American Medical Association has worked to address. Research also shows that many doctors in particular have unreasonable expectations of their mental health and minimize their own needs, which prevents them from getting help.

There is nothing good about suicide, but the way we can honor those who lost their lives is by talking about mental health more and taking action to make sure those who are most vulnerable feel supported. This is an opportunity to think about what else we can give health-care workers to make sure they don’t reach the point of a mental health crisis. For health-care workers who encounter traumatic patient deaths, they need to be given the chance to process the emotions of what they’re feeling and have someone to listen to them without judgement, whether that’s a loved one or a mental health professional. It could also be worth exploring better paid leave for these workers. Most importantly, we need to start connecting the tremendous mental health resources available in this country—the army of trained mental health professionals and the wide variety of services they offer—to health-care workers and others who need it.

There are some great ways this is happening right now. There’s now a free crisis hotline that front-line workers of all professions can call or text any time they are in the midst of a mental health crisis, and the Suicide Prevention Hotline is another great resource for anyone. There are also many mental health professionals that can be accessed virtually when needed.

The pandemic is shining a light on a problem that’s existed for a long time. With that light, there’s no going back into the dark. And that’s definitely a positive.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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