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B.C. health-care workers at 'breaking point' seeking mental help in growing numbers


Warning: This story mentions suicide. A list of resources for those in crisis is included at the end of the article.

Their jobs were stressful to begin with, but the ongoing toxic drug crisis, waves of COVID-19 and other mass casualty events have B.C. healthcare workers pleading for faster access to mental health care as more of them find themselves distressed and despairing.

CTV News has spoken on background with nurses, paramedics, and doctors about their experiences but is only naming those who spoke on behalf of associations due to ongoing concerns about professional repercussions, which are even happening in the wake of a personal crisis. 

“Every physician probably has a story of someone they know who was penalized in some way for seeking health care for mental health, for being honest and courageously seeking help,” said Dr. Anne Nguyen, a consultant in the Doctors of BC’s Physician Health Program. 

The program's confidential help-line has seen a 30 per cent surge in calls since the start of the pandemic. With 1,000 open files at any given time, the program is treating one in 20 of the province’s resident, practicing, or retired doctors.

“We are aware of several physician suicides in BC in the last 12 months,” said Nguyen, noting that physicians have overtaken dentists as the profession with the highest suicide rate. “When a person dedicates a lot of time, energy and effort to one aspect of life, it's easy to become unbalanced.”


The BC Nurses’ Union says their 48,000 members, who form the single largest association of health-care workers in the province, are waiting months for one-on-one psychological support.

“To have to go from one death to the other and not having the time to process that yourself – it has an impact on your mental health,” said Aman Grewal, union president.

“Having seen so much death and crisis after crisis, they just are at that breaking point." 

Both the nurses’ and paramedics’ union revealed that some members were so traumatized by events like the heat dome, wildfires, repeated resuscitations of drug poisoning victims, and waves of COVID-19, they still aren’t back to work months and even years later. 

“We see human suffering at levels that most people don't see ever in their lifetime,” said Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. Health and Wellness Coordinator, Bob Parkinson. “The nature of the work we do isn't normal, it is a high-stress, high-impact job and we see people oftentimes in the worst situations.”

The latest WorksafeBC data shows that, as of 2021, nurses and paramedics had the highest number of approved claims for mental disorders. Doctors, however, work as essentially independent contractors who have no benefits, protections, or paid sick time. So, if they take time off to address their help, they forego their income. 

Private psychological support is largely out of pocket for health-care workers; nurses have approximately $900 a year to spend, but that only covers approximately four sessions.


All three groups described a better understanding of the importance of mental health, more resources to access, and ongoing efforts to address the many factors that can impact mental health on the job.

But they also pointed out that patients are generally angrier and more likely to lash out at health-care providers, verbally and physically, and that there’s increasing moral distress. Every time a shift is short-staffed, which has become the norm during this year’s respiratory virus season, those workers cannot provide the level of care they’re accustomed to and they often feel like they’re failing the patients who count on them. 

“The supports need to be there at the time when the member needs it,” said Grewal.

Parkinson agreed and pointed out that while their profession prepares paramedics for the stresses of the job when they’re training recruits, there’s no way to stave off the effects of repeated exposure to trauma.

“The idea that we knew what we were getting into -- I would say I was excited, eager and, I was happy to be there when somebody needed me and I really enjoyed it,” he said. “When the effects of that stress or that trauma started to build up, oftentimes we don't even see it and I don't think you can prepare for it: it's not a normal exposure to stressors.”

Caring for the caregivers isn’t just the right thing to do for them, it helps their loved ones and the public that they serve. But Nguyen says health-care workers' caregiving role means there can be an added, internalized stigma to seeking help.

“We're trained to be helpers,” Nguyen said. “From a personal level, there's this sense that, 'I'm supposed to be helping other people.' So there's a sense of shame, that 'there's something wrong with me.'"

Anyone in crisis can reach the BC Crisis Centre 24 hours a day through web-based chat or by calling 604-872-3311in Greater Vancouver and Toll Free at 1-866-661-3311.

Additional resources include:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-833-456-4566)
  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (1-800 463-2338)
  • Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) Top Stories

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