Mental health funding could be on the way soon for San Diego health workers
Federal funding for mental health programs is sitting on President Joe Biden's desk. The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act aims to provide millions in funding to create new mental health programs or beef up existing ones.
"It’s a problem," Sharp San Diego nurse Paul Kelly said. "It’s an issue."
Kelly is also a local union representative for United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals. He said staff had always been under pressure, but the pandemic made it worse.
San Diego Access and Crisis Line: (888) 724-7240
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; Spanish: 1-888-628-9454
"The signs that I see are a lot of nurses leaving, a lot of nurses are complaining about burnout," Kelly said.
"Works out great financially, but it also adds a stressor that you may not even be aware of until it starts to show itself in the way that you’re coping with at work," he said. "It’s like it creeps up on you — 'I'm doing fine, I can handle this, and don't know why people are complaining' — and then you start to get angry with things you never got angry with."
The Health Care Provider Protection Act was named after New York doctor Lorna Breen, who was working almost nonstop during COVID-19 surges and became overwhelmed.
"Dr. Breen's family has reported publicly that they think her fear of reporting that she had a mental health concern to the board of medicine prevented her from getting the treatment she needed and led to her death by suicide," said Judy Davidson, a UC San Diego nurse scientist.
Davidson studies suicides among health workers. She said there was a stigma around mental health that has to be removed. She has found that some people are afraid to report what they are feeling because they worry about their jobs.
"It drives treatment underground," Davidson said. "It increases stigma and decreases the likelihood someone will have help seeking behaviors — getting treatment — and makes it more likely that they will have to turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms like drugs, alcohol or medications."
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Mental health disorders include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and substance abuse. There can also be incidents of post-traumatic stress. Davidson also maintains that the reporting process must be kept private. She said that in 2016 UCSD expanded a confidential suicide prevention program to all its health workers.
"And lo and behold — it worked," Davidson said. "After we launched that education, we got a group of employees that thought they were at risk and we were able to move them into treatment before they had to lose their job or license."
That program still works with 60 to 100 staff members per year, and it is the kind of intervention that the legislation is targeting.
"There was always problems — even before the pandemic — but now it's gotten to a tipping point where, if we don't do something, the numbers are going to skyrocket," Davidson said. "That's why the Lorna Breen Act is so important. We have to identify best practices, take outdated practices and get rid of them, and we all have to take action for change."
Davidson’s research shows that nurses are at a higher risk of suicide than the general population, with a common reason being the fear of losing their job or medical license. She said data about health care suicides came from the CDC and had been two years delayed, meaning that it is unclear yet if the pandemic has contributed to an increase.