Frontline workers need mental health support, too.

We often discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of patients — but our frontline workers, from physicians and firefighters to dispatchers and paramedics, are suffering as well. 

What can we do to support them? For one, acknowledging that they need help. Expecting these professionals to be untouched by their daily experience of suffering and loss is, as Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”1

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how frontline workers’ mental health is suffering, why they’re unlikely to seek support, and what Canada — and TELUS Health — is doing to help them through these challenging times.

The state of frontline workers’ mental health.

According to a study in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 44% of Canada’s public safety personnel experience mental health issues. This can manifest in numerous ways. For example, it’s been reported that one in three nurses screen positive for major depressive disorder, 26% of physicians suffer from high levels of burnout, and 34% of firefighters screen positive for one or multiple mental health symptoms.

Despite these high rates, however, frontline mental health issues often go untreated because of the demands of shift work and the negative stigma around asking for help. A recent study revealed that 93% of first responders feel mental health is as important as physical health, but 47% think seeking help would negatively impact their work and the perception of co-workers.

Frontline workers have a double disadvantage to start with. When you include the stress, exhaustion, and lack of access to in-person services brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, you have a perfect storm for a mental health emergency among our most essential professionals.

How Canada is supporting frontline workers.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians have expressed appreciation for frontline workers with singing, horn honking, and handmade signs. But that’s not all. Here are a few other ways we’ve stepped up to help our frontline workers stay healthy and strong:

Responding quickly and kindly.

In April 2020, one month after the pandemic sent many Canadians into lockdown, the Mental Health Commission of Canada offered free virtual crisis response training to help frontline workers care for themselves and those around them. In addition, psychologists have been donating therapy to those who need it through the Canadian Psychology Association.

Expanding virtual care.

The use of virtual care jumped from 20% to 60% in a matter of weeks when Canadians were forced to seek alternate channels for channels. Virtual access has become the new normal, offering safely distanced services to people wherever they are. And 76% of Canadians are willing to keep using virtual care after the pandemic.

Providing direct access to tools and resources.

Apps like Espri by TELUS Health have been introduced to help break down the barriers between frontline workers and mental health and wellness support. With learning tools, goal setting, and group videoconferencing for training and support forums, Espri puts mental health resources into the palms of frontline workers’ hands.

Let’s turn the corner on mental health.

When demands for support increase, digital health can play a promising role. While we still have a ways to go in addressing both the gap in support services and barriers like stigma, we’ve taken a positive step forward by making digital tools available to those who need them. As frontline workers show their willingness to reach out and try new things like virtual mental health, we may begin to turn the corner for the people who take care of us in our most difficult moments.

To learn more about how we’re supporting the mental health of Canadians, visit our Physician Pulse blog.

1. Remen, R. N. (1996). Kitchen table wisdom: Stories that heal. New York, Riverhead Books.

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