Taking action

The Lorna Breen Act: Why mental health matters

In a time where the risk of suicide is two times higher for physicians than the general population, physician advocacy has helped create concrete change via the Lorna Breen Act.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 21, 2022, after the Lorna Breen Act became law.

The last time I participated in DO Day, I advocated for a specific list of priorities, including the Lorna Breen Act, which recently passed the U.S. Senate and was signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 18, 2022.

I explained to legislators why I unequivocally believed they should support these issues brought to them by the AOA. I was so proud of myself for speaking with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, because the last time I participated in DO Day was also my first.

A startling truth

As a fourth-year medical student who had only recently discovered a passion for advocacy and health policy, I was beginning to realize a startling truth in medicine. Change doesn’t always happen unless you make it happen. Last year, along with hundreds of other medical students, residents, and physicians, I fought for three things:

Aerial Petty, DO, at New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital, where she is completing her family medicine residency.

During DO Day, I explained to legislators that Dr. Lorna Breen was an emergency medicine physician in New York City who died by suicide on April 26, 2020. As the director of the emergency department at The New York Presbyterian Allen Hospital, she was at the forefront of what had been the scariest time in many people’s lives.

I also explained to legislators that in addition to struggling through a pandemic, she had also been struggling through an entire U.S. medical system that was never set up to provide adequate mental health resources for its doctors. 

On March 17, 2021, I matched into family medicine at New York Presbyterian-Columbia University. My home hospital was the Allen Hospital. Last year, I was telling the story of Dr. Lorna Breen, who walked those hallways. Now, I walk them myself.

Aerial Petty, DO, shows her residency ID card at New York Presbyterian-Columbia University.

Every day, during my inpatient rotation, I walk into that emergency department. I’m only a resident, and already, I experience the medical acuity and administrative burden, the systematic frustration and consistent uncertainty we face as physicians in the United States.

The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act will address the high rates of burnout among health care professionals and the high suicide rate among doctors.

Specifically, as detailed by Congress, “The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must award grants to hospitals, medical professional associations, and other health care entities for programs to promote mental health and resiliency among healthcare providers.”

The act demands action and accountability, and thanks to the advocacy efforts of the AOA and its members, it passed the Senate in February and was signed into law on March 18, 2022. It will help both new physicians at the beginning of our careers and those who are more firmly established.

Change requires support

The importance of proper mental health support and of a campaign that results in improved mental health and resiliency among health care workers cannot be denied. I had no idea when I participated in that DO Day almost one year ago where I would be now.

But that only highlights the importance of the advocacy that we as osteopathic medical students and physicians do. We advocate for the needs of physicians in the medical community because we are also members of the broader community. We care for each other while simultaneously caring for our patients. We make change happen. 

Now, it is essential to recognize that the kind of change we need requires our support. It requires the support of first-year medical students who are only just learning that they will one day be responsible for the lives of their patients. It requires the support of third-year residents, who are learning that they will one day be attending physicians responsible for educating first-years.

Change requires the support of the AOA members who engage with their communities, states, and representatives through platforms like the Osteopathic Advocacy Network and events like DO Day. Change requires the support of DOs who write letters to their senators, speak truth to their representatives, and lead by example in their communities. Change requires you. 

If you need help

If you are struggling with depression or considering harming yourself, please get help. The Physician Support Line is available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. ET at (888) 409-0141. Another option is The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides free, confidential support for people in distress 24/7. Call (800) 273-8255 to speak to a counselor or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat for online help.

What needs to be done to improve physicians’ mental health and reduce burnout

DO psychiatrists share pandemic mental health ‘life hacks’


  1. Stephen Blythe, D.O.

    This article is coincident with another article arriving in my inbox this morning, in, of all places, the GoodRx Newsletter. The article is on “moral injury” – which is distinct from PTSD. The article states:

    Moral injury refers to the aftermath of engaging in, witnessing, or failing to act in a situation that conflicts with deeply held moral beliefs. People suffering from moral injury may feel lasting “guilt, shame, disgust, and anger” as a result of exposure to traumatic incidents. Individuals who feel betrayed by those they have trusted can also experience moral injury.

    Similarly, those who must make difficult decisions regarding others’ survival can also experience moral injury. People suffering from moral injury often find it difficult to forgive themselves. They may feel persistent anger as a result of the betrayals they have experienced.

    Moral injury is different from PTSD. Judging from my own experiences in medical school and in practice, moral injury is potentially a significant cause of depression and suicide among physicians. Especially as students and in post-graduate training we experience ineptness, incompetence, and betrayals that we are impotent to do anything about. And while that may drive many of us to become the best physicians we can become, these acts can leave lasting anger, bitterness, and sadness. There are few resources available for medical professionals, especially outside of major metropolitan areas.

  2. J F

    This may seem unnecessarily contrarian, but I would just as soon not have hospital administrators empowered by Federal mandate overseeing physician mental health. Get ready for the required evaluations, extra CME, and mandatory enslavement linked to your privileges. We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy