A new study, conducted by University of Windsor researchers, aims to shed light on the experience of nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, professors in psychology and nursing at the University of Windsor conducted over 30 "in-depth" interviews with Windsor-based nurses who have been working in health care settings locally or across the border in Detroit.
"When the pandemic hit and Detroit became a hotspot I was thinking, 'oh these people I've worked with, that I was very close with at the time, how are they coping? This must be so difficult for them,'" said Dana Menard, researcher and University of Windsor assistant professor.
That concern for healthcare workers, or "healthcare heroes", is something that's been felt across the world, but for Menard and her colleagues, it was a concern that sparked an investigation.
Menard, along with researchers Jody Ralph, Laurie Freeman, and Kendall Soucie, produced a study called Heroes, or just doing our job? The impact of COVID-19 on registered nurses in a border city.
Nurses feel stigmatized amid the pandemic
Participants were asked about topics such as community response to health care workers during the pandemic, mental health issues, as well as stigma associated with working in a high risk environment, such as a hospital.
"It was very hard for them, particularly the nurses who were Canadian and working in Detroit. I think some of them were sort of made to feel as though they shouldn't be working over there, that they shouldn't be helping because they were at higher risk," said Menard.
The study revealed "two dimensions", of the community response to nurses during this time, Menard explained. She said while some nurses felt supported by free meals, nightly clapping and singing, and car parades, others felt stigmatized as potential "carriers."
"(The public) keep saying: 'Oh, nurses are heroes. Doctors are heroes. They're doing so much for us.' You're out in scrubs and they're like, 'They're contaminated, get them away, they're infectious,'" reads a statement from one participant in the study.
Menard said findings also revealed changes in behavioural patterns for some participants during this time, such as a change or loss in appetite, or a increase in alcohol consumption.
"Depression, anxiety, traumatic responses, lots of sleep disturbances...so nightmares or difficulty getting sleep or just not feeling rested," are some of the impacts participants noticed, Menard said.
Risk of overwhelming nurses
Not only did the study identify the ways in which the pandemic is impacting nurses, but Menard said the results can also inform mental supports for nurses moving forward.
"In this small group we didn't see positive attitudes toward therapy, so I'm noticing that a lot of organizations and a lot of communities are focusing their response to nurse mental health by implementing tele-therapy, and I'm afraid that's not going to work, there's not a lot of interest in that population" she said.
Menard said creating supports within the hospitals for nurses, who work both inside and outside COVID-19 units could better serve the needs identified in their research. She said if a response and supports for nursing mental health are not dealt with soon, there's a risk of the profession being "overwhelmed" by the changes the pandemic has created.
"We want to set things up to respond before it becomes a problem because we know from previous pandemics, for example the SARS pandemic in Toronto, that a pretty big chunk of the nursing population either left the profession or had thoughts about leaving," she said.