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Virginia’s Mental Health Advocacy Champion Award 2022

Written by Bruce Cruser

Bruce Cruser has been Executive Director of Mental Health Virginia since 2016, bringing a background in social work and community corrections, and many years of leadership experience in local and state government.

September 15, 2022

Physicians and nurses die by suicide at twice the rate of the general population.

At our Victory for Mental Health Dinner Program next week, we will present this year’s Mental Health Advocacy Champion Award to Jennifer Feist, Corey Feist, and Sen. Tim Kaine for passage of the Dr. Lorna Breen Healthcare Provider Protection Act.

Long before the pandemic, health care professionals experienced high levels of stress and burnout and a suicide rate much greater than the general population. Workforce shortages contribute to their stress and exhaustion, particularly for those in direct patient care, which leads to more of them leaving, and the problems continue.  

In addition to the staff shortages, the culture of medical practice contributes to burnout. When our health caregivers themselves need care, too often they avoid seeking help because it may be perceived as a sign of weakness or unfitness for the job, or even a fear of losing their professional license. This has to change.

On March 18, 2022 the President signed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which provides federal funding to address behavioral health and well-being among healthcare workers.

The law is named for Lorna Breen, MD, a New York City emergency physician from Charlottesville, Virginia who died by suicide April 26, 2020 after exhaustion caring for COVID-19 patients. She became infected herself, but then returned to work on her first day without a fever and resumed working 12- to 15-hour shifts.

Lorna’s sister, Jennifer Feist, and Jennifer’s husband Corey Feist, started the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, and advocated for national legislation to address the mental health needs of health care workers. They took the issue to Sen. Tim Kaine, who sponsored the bill. It passed with bipartisan support and is now law.

The legislation aims to prevent suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions among health care professionals.

As summarized by the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act does the following:

  • Establishes grants for training health profession students, residents, or health care professionals in evidence-informed strategies to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, mental health conditions, and substance use disorders.
  • Seeks to identify and disseminate evidence-informed best practices for reducing and preventing suicide and burnout among health care professionals, training health care professionals in appropriate strategies, and promoting their health and job satisfaction.
  • Establishes a national evidence-based education and awareness campaign targeting health care professionals to encourage them to seek support and treatment for mental and behavioral health concerns.
  • Establishes grants for employee education, peer-support programming, and mental and behavioral health treatment; health care providers in current or former COVID-19 hotspots will be prioritized.
  • Establishes a comprehensive study on health care professional mental and behavioral health and burnout, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on such professionals’ health.

The Feists are not stopping with this legislative victory, but are advancing the cause to break stigma, bring mental health out in the open, and change the culture to one that promotes rather than discourages providers getting the right support. More information about Dr. Lorna Breen and the foundation’s work is available here: https://drlornabreen.org/

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