Hospital offers mental health care to stressed staff

It’s what an average day looks like when Laura Istanboulian goes to work.

“You could be assisting a patient who is suffering from delusions, and in the bed beside you another patient is dying,” she said. “You have phones ringing off the hook, and might not even have eaten lunch that day.”

Istanboulian works as a nurse practitioner in the Acute Respiratory Unit at Michael Garron (formerly Toronto East General) Hospital. Because of the demands that hospital staff face, Istanboulian says she feels caught between two stressful forces.

“The problem is we’re dealing with our own mental wellness, and at the same time we’re dealing with another human being,” she said.

At MGH it’s Christine Devine’s job to spot when staff members, such as Istanboulian, are buckling under the strain.

“These workers can suffer from what we call compassion fatigue or a burnout. It’s when staff are working long hours, and neglecting their own needs and sleep,” she said.

In 2004, MGH implemented a program to help raise awareness of mental health in the workplace. The program helps hospital colleagues discuss strategies to end the stigma around mental health and provide assistance in creating a work environment that is free “Stigma is hugely prominent in the health care industry,” Devine said. “People sometimes brush it off and think that health care workers should be able to handle it and realize what they’ve gotten into.”

The wellness program offers meditation, group therapy, and it utilizes social media to help staff members cope with their own mental health. Devine and Istanboulian agree that hospital workers may already live with mental health issues, and in a bigger lens, their work environment is stressful by nature.

“A lot of the time the jobs of first responders and health care professionals can be incredibly unpredictable,” Devine said. “There’s a high risk for trauma.”

While providing medical services for close to 90 years, MGH, is also only one of three organizations in Canada to be awarded Excellence Canada’s Mental Health at Work Award at a platinum level. Despite this achievement, Devine believes there’s more work to be done.

“By 2020, one in eight Canadians will suffer from a mental health disorder,” she said. “We need institutions to go beyond saying, ‘We have a gym. That’s enough,’ and focus on more solutions.”