Could cannabis help pandemic-stressed healthcare workers to cope

Published Jan 20, 2021 01:00 p.m. ET
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This time last year, some folks who were paying close attention held their breath, hoping and waiting for confirmation that the newly discovered coronavirus would be contained and stopped at China’s borders, but much of the world still had no idea what was coming. It was a louder, more bustling time when the majority of Canadians were still living life to the fullest, and now it feels like it was all years, not just months ago.

Overstretched hospitals pre-Covid

The Canadian healthcare system, like any other, has its flaws, but most appreciate the fact that they can visit a doctor or specialist as required for free, even if it means a bit longer of a wait. All residents agree that this is a fair system that benefits those who are worst off in society, but the tradeoff is that the majority of our hospitals are running at full capacity on a normal day. Precious beds were taken up by surgeries, emergencies, and everything that falls in between, leaving very little room for error, so when COVID-19 came crashing in, it didn’t take long for our healthcare workers to feel the very sudden pinch.

A flood of new cases

Our healthcare system and those who work within it were stretched beyond their means long before we ever caught wind of any pandemic, so when COVID-19 hit, it was absolutely devastating. A job that was high stress with a significant risk of burnout turned into a complete living nightmare. PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) went from an occasionally utilized safety precaution against contamination from bodily fluids to an outright necessity. Nurses and doctors who saw the first patients were coming down ill and no one knew what this was or how exactly to treat it.

Unlike any other illness

Though many would argue that healthcare workers sign up for this type of position when they choose this profession, this is an illness unlike any we have witnessed in this lifetime, and it was terrifying because for some and in particular our most vulnerable, the illness was a death sentence that could not be stopped. With the elderly at risk, nurses, doctors, and other staff who fit into that category began leaving the field. Such massive losses at this sensitive time were bad enough, but that wasn’t the end of it. Those who couldn’t handle the extra pressure left, while a few who were retired did the complete opposite.

This upheaval on its own was enough to send stressed-out healthcare workers scrambling to figure out what to do next, and they handled everything that came at them the best they could. In Canada alone, we've lost more than 15 000 souls far too soon to the deadly disease, and many of them played an important role in how well we tackled the first wave of the pandemic. These actions are commendable, as we rely on thousands of regular everyday people to take care of those who need it the most, but they also inflicted trauma.

Nurses, doctors, PSWs and everyone in between watched on as a much higher number of patients than usual were drifting away, oftentimes being the only reassuring voice in an empty room due to COVID-19 restrictions. Even those who had never touched or witnessed a single infected patient were adversely impacted, as they were instructed to function without all of the typical emotional supports in place. Pregnant women were instructed to birth alone, many of our elderly drifted away without one final visit, and surgeries were postponed or canceled, placing an immense burden on the minds of workers.

Imagine having to turn an angry family member away while knowing that their mother might not still be here tomorrow or telling a pregnant woman that her dream birth surrounded by those who love her simply isn’t possible. How about calling a patient who has been patiently awaiting a life-changing surgery that they’ll be bed-bound a little while longer? Shattering the hopes and dreams of sick people is not what this profession is generally about, and yet it is exactly what our healthcare workers have had to endure since the very early days of the pandemic.

The trauma isn’t over yet


In Canada, we fared far better than some other countries during the first wave of COVID-19 cases. Still, more than 15 000 are dead, and over 500 000 have recovered, but to what end? News of “long haulers” are hitting the headlines, talking about long term adverse effects that could linger for months or even longer, so even those who get better aren’t necessarily out of the woods yet, and now here we are, sitting at the peak of a much worse second wave. After all of this trauma, there is no rest for our fine people in healthcare, as they’re being tossed into the fire to handle whatever’s coming next.

Common problems

Now, there is no denying that our nurses, doctors, PSW’s and other healthcare professionals have a hard job. That’s exactly why we call them frontline workers, but many of them are now struggling with problems caused by working in such a high-stress environment.  Some are having trouble getting rest, as they’re kept awake by the images and memories of all that they’ve been through. Many are struggling to gain an appetite, and to get out of the house, for fear of harming someone, and these people are going to need some help.

The importance of coping strategies

If you want to learn how to increase appetite or get a better night's rest, what you’ll need is a good set of coping strategies, possibly combined with prescribed medicines. This works best after the stressful event has passed, as part of a healing process, but it’s not ideal when you’re still knee-deep in the mess that got you in such a bad state of mind in the first place. What many of them need right now is a temporary solution that will work as a de-stressor and a sleep aid, and cannabis is both of those things and more.

Why cannabis is a safe and effective option for healthcare workers

One of those most commonly used methods of treatment for healthcare workers who are struggling is medication, but they don’t always work, and they can come with a host of side effects that might not be conducive for people who work in healthcare. They can’t be on the job groggy, be it from medications or poor night's sleep because lives are depending on them showing up to do the best job possible. This is where some would say that cannabis fits right in perfectly as a band-aid solution that could help.

The effects of cannabis can vary from one person to the next, but in many cases, all it takes is a small dose of cannabinoids to gain the benefits, especially when the individual has a low tolerance. It can relieve stress, pains and migraines, improve mood and motivation, increase appetite, and improve sleep. Cannabis also comes with the added benefit of wearing off rather quickly, which is perfect if you need something that will leave you bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready for work in the morning.

It might not be the perfect option for everyone, but many healthcare workers are turning to cannabis for peace and release, and even more, could truly benefit from these all-natural effects if only they knew the possibilities.

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