Help coming for nurses struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse

A new bilingual health program created by Ontario nursing organizations and a nursing union aims to help nurses experiencing mental health or substance abuse issues.

Nurses' Health Program aims to offer 'supportive, confidential environment'

The new Nurses' Health Program provides support and resources to Ontario nurses experiencing mental health and substance use issues. (Lighthunter/Shutterstock)

A new bilingual health program created by Ontario nursing organizations and a nursing union aims to help nurses experiencing mental health or substance abuse issues.

The Nurses' Health Program is voluntary and offers nurses a treatment plan, individualized support, dedicated case managers and monitoring. Nurses can access help through a new website.

"My hope for this program is that nurses will have a supportive, confidential environment in which to recover from their illnesses," said Dianne Martin, RPNAO's chief executive officer. "It will be one more step towards addressing the stigma that is a barrier to people seeking treatment for these issues."

The initiative was created by the College of Nurses of Ontario, the Ontario Nurses' Association, the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario and the Registered Practical Nurses Association of Ontario (RPNAO).

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians experience a mental illness or addiction problem in a given year, and people with substance use problems are up to three times more likely to have a mental illness.

Martin said it was important to have a program that not only helps nurses but also protects the clients they serve.

"We wanted something that would have the full trust of nurses ... and have a reporting element that would keep the public safe," said Martin.

University of Ottawa health researcher Ivy Bourgeault says it's important to understand how certain working environments can exacerbate mental health issues. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

Stress in the workplace 

University of Ottawa health researcher Ivy Bourgeault said while it's crucial to provide support for nurses — who are often overworked and are performing in stressful environments — if working conditions are to improve, the root causes of their stress must be addressed.

"Nursing is a really interesting case to look at because of the level of violence that is experienced in the workplace," said Bourgeault, who is embarking on a project that looks at mental health in various professions, including nursing.

"We need to reach beyond just focusing on the individual ... and look at what are the elements of work that are causing people to be stressed, to feel burnout, to have overload."

In 2018, the Ontario Nurses' Association Local 8 launched an anti-violence campaign to highlight the issues registered nurses face in the workplace, often on a daily basis.

Bourgeault said nurses still have to contend with the pressure around admitting they have mental health issues, although it is lessening.

"It's absolutely fascinating to think that there is stigma in health care," she said.

"The health professionals that are taking care of people, patients, the public with mental health issues are still stigmatized within their profession."


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