May 4, 2021

How faculty have demonstrated resilience during 'biggest mental health crisis of our time'

Reflections on a year of teaching and research at the O’Brien Institute during COVID-19
From left: Pamela Roach, Jane Lamaire, and Rahim Kachra
From left: Pamela Roach, Jane Lamaire, and Rahim Kachra

March 16 marked one year of learning, working and teaching from home for most of the University of Calgary community.

The pandemic has upset almost every facet of academia — disrupting the progress of research projects, adversely affecting work-life balance, and exacerbating existing racial and gender inequities.

As a result, COVID-19 presents an unprecedented threat to not just physical health, but mental health as well, says Dr. Jane Lemaire, MD, director of wellness at the Office of Professionalism, Equity and Diversity and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest threat to mental health I have seen over a 30-year career in medicine,” says Lemaire, who is also the physician lead of Well Doc Alberta, a forum to create a provincial approach to physician wellness.

Faculty who also work in hospitals, on the frontlines of this crisis, were facing serious mental health challenges even before the pandemic, says Lemaire. “Physicians have really high rates of undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues in non-pandemic times, and have the highest rates of death by suicide of any profession,” she says. “COVID-19 is further exacerbating these issues.”

More discrimination and harassment

Discrimination and harassment based on race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual identity and sexual orientation has also intensified because of the pandemic, with progress being eroded for many groups, including women, says Lemaire.

“Women are disproportionately taking on a burden of unpaid care, whether that be childcare, or caring for older family members, and in some cases that affects their ability to stay in the workforce,” she says.

Lemaire, who is nearing retirement, says this has been the busiest, and one of the most challenging, years of her life.

A frontline general internal medicine doctor, Lemaire says her department had to adapt to the challenges of providing care for COVID-19 patients in addition to the usual patient care needs.

“This has been a difficult year for everyone and I urge my colleagues in medicine who are struggling with mental health to seek care — you are not alone, and you deserve support from experts to help you get through,” she says.

Adjusting expectations to a new reality

Dr. Pamela Roach, PhD, was applying for faculty positions when the pandemic hit. She says doing academic interviews over Zoom, while her young kids ran around in the background, was difficult.

“Pre-COVID, I never imagined I’d be doing presentations to apply for a position with my kids literally behind me in their pajamas,” says Roach, a member of the O’Brien Institute and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the CSM.

Starting a new faculty position during a pandemic came with its own set of challenges.  

“I think a lot of us who aim to become faculty have expectations about what it will be like when we finally make it – finally get the position. But I’m still just in my dining room, logging onto slightly different zoom links, trying to build connections virtually,” says Roach, an assistant professor, departments of Family Medicine and Community Health Sciences, CSM.

Roach says fostering the community connections that are critical for Indigenous health research, her primary research area, is complicated by the pandemic.

Many women carry disproportionate burden

The pressure to maintain pre-pandemic productivity levels is also something Roach says she sees many of her female colleagues grappling with.

“In many cases women in academia, especially those who have school-age children, are hanging on by a thread,” she says.

Echoing Lemaire, Roach says that women are often disproportionally managing pandemic related burdens such as the changes to household labour, childcare and eldercare. This has an impact on mental health and the time available to perform academic work.

Despite the significant changes to teaching and learning over the past year, Roach says she is proud of the students and teaching assistants and the way they have adapted. 

“Having to do entire semesters online was really hard but I think the students have been amazing,” she says. “We all know there are elements of their education they're missing out on, and as faculty we’ve been trying to remain aware of the added pressures students are facing and support the best we can,” she says.

Scholarship at a distance

In the early days of the pandemic, faculty members scrambled to transition their planned lectures from in-person to virtual formats.

Effectively delivering a virtual curriculum during a pandemic remains a challenge, says Dr. Rahim Kachra, MD, a member of the O’Brien Institute and director of teaching innovation in undergraduate medical education at the University of Calgary.

“It’s not as simple as just moving content onto Zoom. There needs to be a lot of thought put into how to teach virtually, and how to do it well,” says Kachra, a clinical associate professor, Department of Medicine, CSM.

When classes suddenly moved online in spring 2020, in addition to learning to teach their content in a novel way, many faculty were dealing with competing priorities due to the pandemic, such as increased clinical obligations, COVID-19 exposures, and caring for family members. This made for a stressful situation, says Kachra. 

Working and teaching virtually, often from home, can also blur the boundaries between work and personal time, something Kachra says he fell prey to. 

“Many clinicians volunteered for COVID shifts, but at the same time had to keep up with other clinical and academic deliverables. It was challenging to switch off,” he says.

“I wanted to be a clinician on the frontlines of a pandemic, taking care of patients, while contributing to the education of our trainees and colleagues. The challenge was trying to do both effectively at the same time.”

Resources available for those struggling with mental health:

  • Faculty: The Protected Disclosure Advisor is available to all members of the University community and serves as a confidential resource. Learn more.
  • Physicians: Support services for physicians and their families can be viewed here.
  • Staff: Overview of WellBeing & WorkLife resources here. University of Calgary mental health resources here

Dr. Jane Lemaire is a clinical professor, Division of General Internal Medicine, and a clinical professor in the Department of Medicine, CSM.

The 70th annual Canadian Mental Health Association Mental Health Week runs May 3-9, 2021. Learn more.