“One of Us” Offers Solutions on Physician Suicide

National Physician Suicide Awareness Day

The April suicide of VP&S emergency medicine faculty member Lorna Breen, MD, who worked on the front lines during the early weeks of the pandemic, was the focus of a Sept. 17 panel discussion held in observance of National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. 

Members of the Columbia and Cornell medical campuses gathered for the special virtual presentation presented by the Departments of Emergency Medicine and Psychiatry at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. The event centered around this year's theme, "One of Us," and highlighted Dr. Breen’s legacy and the ongoing fight to curb physician suicide. 

Lorna M. Breen, MD

Lorna M. Breen

“This is more than the story of one person,” said Jennifer Feist, Dr. Breen’s sister, who joined the event alongside her husband, Corey. In the wake of their loss, the Breen family has campaigned tirelessly to destigmatize mental health care for physicians and to champion better legislation to protect health care workers, who are twice as likely to die by suicide than the general population in the United States.

The Feists recalled the immense pressure placed on Dr. Breen and her peers throughout the pandemic, shining a light on mental health in the medical community. “She seemed broken,” Jennifer recalled of her sister.

The couple condemned the culture that contributed to Dr. Breen’s death and called for more measures to protect health care workers. “Our expectation that our health care providers be super human—with no needs, no fears, and no need for rest—has to change,” Jennifer said. “We need to change the mental health stigma in the medical community from top to bottom and bottom to top.”

The Breen family has since established the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, which seeks to support the mental health of those on the front line of health care. The family and the foundation have been instrumental in advocating for the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, new legislation introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

The legislation would create behavioral health and well-being training programs as part of a national campaign to encourage health care workers to seek support. The legislation would also fund a federal study into health care professional mental health and burnout. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Congressman Max Rose (D-NY) joined the Sept. 17 webinar to offer their support and pledge their continued advocacy for the Breen Act.

The webinar’s panel discussion featured Dr. Christine Moutier, CMO for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Dr. John Mann, the Paul Janssen Professor of Translational Neuroscience at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons; and Dr. Peter Marzuk, the Gertrude Feil Associate Dean of Curricular Affairs and Professor of Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

The panelists spoke to the conditions that contribute to increased rates of suicide among health care professionals and answered questions about what can be done to reduce the number of physicians suffering in silence. The panel also called for more medical centers to implement confidential and immediate access to care. At Columbia, the Department of Psychiatry has established CopeColumbia to help employees talk about their experiences and obtain confidential guidance from psychiatry faculty. Additional initiatives to honor Dr. Breen at VP&S are underway. The Department of Emergency Medicine will establish The Lorna M. Breen, MD Annual Memorial Lecture. Visiting professors will present topics aligned with Lorna’s interests in leadership, professional development, quality improvement, and physician wellness.

Other events in observation of National Physician Suicide Awareness Day also took place around the medical center. On Sept. 16, residents, fellows, and program directors gathered for a virtual presentation featuring Dr. Moutier followed by a panel discussion with residents from both the Columbia and Cornell campuses. The panel was co-moderated by Elise Desperito, MD, program director of the radiology residency, and Manish Garg, MD, program director for the NewYork-Presbyterian emergency medicine residency program.

This year’s Gray Matters Gala virtual event hosted by the Department of Psychiatry collected donations to support the department’s initiatives to combat the mental health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. The gala featured a panel discussion (beginning at 24:20) largely devoted to physician care and wellness throughout the pandemic.