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Holding the Line: Nurses, mental health and the COVID pandemic

Celebrating International Nurses Week

From May 5th-15th, the world celebrates International Nurses Week. Now more than ever, mental health is becoming a topic of discussion in the workplace. In industries like healthcare, occupational trauma is a common occurrence that comes with the territory. According to OSI-CAN, an occupational stress injury (OSI) leading to trauma can make a victim four times more likely to develop alcoholism, three times more likely to experience depression, and a whopping 15 times more likely to complete suicide.

Due to the nature of the profession, healthcare workers may find themselves exposed to these traumatic situations and often find it difficult to prioritize their mental health over their work.

The Lived Experience of an Alberta Nurse

CMHA, Alberta Division sat down with Sam*, a nurse in an Albertan ICU, to get a first-hand account of the struggles our caregivers are currently facing.

Sam is an ICU nurse working in Alberta. She’s young, but she speaks from a place of experience having nursed for almost a decade. She joined the ICU a year and a half ago after years of wanting to transfer into critical care; the pandemic’s increase in workload for ICUs presented the perfect opportunity for her to make the change. In under two years, she would find herself in a doctor’s office, prescribed mental stress leave, and struggling to see a path back to the career she once loved through the severe anxiety she developed.

“It’s this permanent feeling of burnout. I was diagnosed with adjustment disorder…which comes with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and burnout,” she says. “Those were things I was feeling, but unable to come to terms with. They were just feelings. Stuff I felt guilty to not show up for. I didn’t know they were conditions – that they were diagnosable. It took me filling out questionnaires in that doctor’s office about what I was thinking and how I was feeling for me to realize ‘Oh my god, I’m not okay.’ I was on the path to a breakdown.”

The Stigma Behind Help

It becomes clear that the nature of caregiving, the need for increased mental health funding and supports, and the stressors of the pandemic have created a perfect storm. In a survey of 18,000 healthcare workers conducted by Statistics Canada in early 2021, 70 per cent of respondents reported worsening mental health working through the pandemic. The profession’s stigmatization of seeking help only exacerbates things.

“A lot of shame and guilt comes with healthcare work…We put so much into caring for other people that we lack in self-care. You feel like if you’re taking care of yourself, you’re choosing yourself over others,” she says, emphasizing understaffing and overworking that has become a particular issue during the pandemic. “The constant calls to come in when you finally get days off, to work overtime, to pick up shifts when you’ve just worked eight twelve-hour night shifts in a row, the pressure you feel to say yes, and the guilt that comes with the word ‘no.’”

Caregiving Through COVID

Sam transferred into Alberta’s ICU at the beginning of the pandemic. Public appreciation for the dangerous conditions and extreme workload was welcome at first, but as pandemic fatigue set in, and nurses suddenly found themselves expected to bear these weights indefinitely – and targeted by conspiracies and the resulting harassment – that support suddenly felt more like justification.

“We were put on a pedestal for the first year of the pandemic – told we’re strong, we’re unbelievable – but we shouldn’t have had to go through all that and sacrifice our wellbeing. Then suddenly, we’re not up on that pedestal anymore, and it’s almost like we were gaslit – and you’re pressured to keep showing up and keep putting up with those conditions. We treat patients going through mental health crises, but for caregivers, personal mental health is at the bottom of our list.”

What Can Be Done?

When asked what she would want readers to think about this Nurses Week, Sam calls for progressive thinking and a little humanity, “We have to make it part of the conversation – to normalize the fact it’s okay to feel burnt out and to be proactive about it. And just…be kind with your caregivers. Be gentle. We don’t make the rules. We didn’t want all this, but we’re doing our best.”

Resources For Nurses

OSI-CAN Alberta is a named project of CMHA that provides veterans, first responders, and public safety personnel with resources like peer and family support groups, service dog acquisition assistance and equine therapy programs, and safe, confidential spaces to discuss traumas and mental health. OSI-CAN is built on a foundation of lived experience to help destigmatize needing support while improving access to invaluable resources. Visit to learn more.

If you or someone you know needs mental health support, please call 211 (in Alberta) or your local distress line.

*For the sake of privacy, the interviewee has requested use of a pseudonym.

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