Trauma and Depression

Dr. Lorna Breen. Photo from Ny Times

A couple weeks ago a well-liked ER doctor at a Manhattan hospital killed herself. Dr. Lorna Breen, the medical director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, had been reportedly working long hours and on the front lines fighting the coronavirus. She was 49 years old. Her father, also a doctor, said Dr. Breen had no history of mental illness or depression, but sometimes that doesn’t matter. Dealing with trauma, be it a one-time situation or an ongoing ordeal, can lead to depression and I imagine that was the case for Dr. Breen. She saw hundreds, if not more, of people suffering. People who couldn’t be with their loved ones during their final moments. Just thinking about how scary it must be for those dying alone makes me so overwhelmingly sad – not just for those dying but their loved ones who couldn’t say goodbye. Couldn’t tell their loved ones, “I love you,” or pray with them.

As of April 7, there had been 59 patient deaths at Dr. Breen’s hospital, according to an internal hospital document.

New York continues to be a hot spot for COVID-19, with 333,000 people infected and more than 21,000 dead. The weight of those numbers is so heavy, it hurts my heart. And I feel a combination of compassion and pain for nurses, doctors, first responders and others who are fighting this battle that has no end in sight. These people are heroes. They continue to fight a losing battle with not enough personal protective equipment and other life-saving medical supplies.

Everything I just mentioned can have a huge toll on anyone, and sometimes traumatic events can actually change your brain and can cause depression. A 2013 study done by researchers at the University of Liverpool showed that traumatic life events are the single biggest cause of anxiety and depression, followed by a family history of mental illness and income and education levels.

According to the National Institutes of Health, some depression can be situational and with life changes, medications and therapy, it can be manageable. Other times, depression, anxiety or PTSD can be life-long problems.

What’s scary to me is that Dr. Breen’s depression (I’m assuming it was depression brought on by severe trauma) came on fast. There wasn’t much time to prepare for COVID-19, as fast as New York was hit. I’m sure priorities were treating sick patients, providing PPE to health care workers among numerous other jobs that had to get done. Which means, there was no time for Dr. Breen to get help. She felt she was best needed at the hospital and no doubt she helped hundreds of people and supported everyone in the ER Department, even after contracting COVID-19 herself.

Dr. Breen was no doubt a hero and dying by suicide doesn’t change that. It just emphasizes the need for better mental health care, more support for those struggling and more understanding from the public, who still support the stigma of mental illness and depression.

Look for these symptoms of trauma-induced depression:

  • Extreme sadness
  • Frequent crying
  • Feelings of loss
  • Emotional numbness
  • Disillusionment
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Recurring memories/flashbacks
  • Nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Social withdrawal

If you know somebody struggling, please direct them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

To learn more about depression, please visit the National Institute of Mental Health.