When hopelessness becomes deadlier than coronavirus
This pandemic is cruel. The disease targets vulnerable people on our island and around the world who are at high risk of deteriorating mental health that could result in death.
Dr. Lorna Breen wasn’t one of those vulnerable people. She was tough. She was fit. She was smart. Breen was the medical director of a busy New York City emergency room on the front lines of the fight against coronavirus this past April when she herself became infected by the virus.
She recovered from the infection but she wasn’t the same. Several weeks later, she committed suicide.
Her father, Dr. Phillip Breen, told The New York Times that his daughter had no history of mental illness, but said when he last spoke to her, she seemed “detached” as she described how distressing it was to have to watch so many patients die, including some who never even made it out of the ambulance.
“She was truly in the trenches on the front line,’’ her father said. “She tried to do her job, and it killed her. In New York City, as in other hard-hit locations, health-care providers have been forced to work exhausting hours, often in overcrowded and under-resourced settings, with no clear end in sight, all while dealing with the fear of exposing themselves or their families to the virus, and it is no more different on Guam.
With an average of one physician dying by suicide every day, doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession. Compared to the rest of the population, physicians are more than twice as likely to die by suicide, and those working on the front lines of the battle against Covid-19 face unique stressors that may further increase their risk.
Our physicians and healthcare providers are crucial to our people, but the unique circumstances of this virus have made it so that the entire community are exposed to the same trepidation.
Even before the Covid-19 lockdown in March, Guam has suffered an epidemic of suicide. Last year, in between the months of June to August, six lives were lost to suicide. This year, within that same three month timespan, that number has increased to 15.
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These people didn’t die of symptoms contracted from a deadly pathogen. More likely, they died because of the sense of hopelessness and depression that accompany the Covid-19 lockdown.
Of course, the lockdown of the island is done all in the name of the health and safety of our people. If we are to ever see the end of this pandemic, we all should do our part to help mitigate the spread of the virus, but I believe that it is crucial that we thoroughly evaluate all the costs that a prolonged lockdown could have on the island. Beyond all the surmounting economic issues that the private sector is seeing, there is also a mental health crisis that is exacerbated by the severe actions done to address coronavirus.
Suicide has always been a relevant issue on the island, as our people continue to struggle with maintaining their mental health. I cannot say definitively that the conditions surrounding the Covid-19 virus are the sole reason that these people were pushed to take their own life. There are many other issues on the island that could contribute to this rise in numbers, but I pose that the environment of fear and paranoia, as well as the sudden change in circumstance, caused by this pandemic may be a reason for this growth in suicides.
At the time of writing this, we have now seen our 13th Covid-related death on Guam, so now more than ever, we should be looking to implement effective mitigation efforts to suppress the spread of the virus and prevent avoidable deaths.
Lockdown is an effective tool used to isolate the virus. That being said, we also need to acknowledge that it places the people under sometimes deadly social isolation as well.
I believe that we need to take stock of the ever growing list of things that are being negatively affected by our efforts to control the virus. It is admittedly irresponsible to neglect any efforts to stop Covid and allow the virus to run its course through the community, however, I believe that it is equally irresponsible to dismiss the genuine concerns of those who oppose lockdown.
I find issue with the rhetoric that it is not difficult to be under islandwide quarantine. While it may not be difficult for you or me, there are many others on this island who are struggling. I acknowledge and appreciate the hard work of public health and GovGuam, but I would advise them to earnestly consider the issues of the people.
Nicholas Salas Akimoto is a sophomore at the University of Guam.