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June 16, 2020

New study reveals shocking levels of mental illness among Canada’s nurses

Media Release
Mental Health
Occupational Health & Safety

Anxious, depressed, suicidal: new study reveals shocking pre-pandemic levels of mental illness among Canada’s nurses

June 16, 2020 (OTTAWA, ON) – A first-of-its-kind study on mental disorders among Canada’s nurses has been released today, revealing widespread and severe symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, burnout and other conditions. The study, Mental Disorder Symptoms Among Nurses in Canada, is based on pan-Canadian data from 7,358 regulated nurses (RNs, LPNs, RPNs, NPs), collected in 2019 by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and researchers Nicholas Carleton, PhD, and Andrea Stelnicki, PhD, of the University of Regina.

“The disturbing rates of mental illness revealed by this study were recorded among thousands of nurses before the pandemic hit – we can only imagine how much more severe they would be now as nurses shoulder the stress of fighting COVID-19,” said Linda Silas, President of the CFNU.

The study found nurses reported symptoms that screen positive for mental disorders at high rates:

  • One in three (36.4%) screened positive for Major Depressive Disorder.
  • More than one in four screened positive for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (26.1%) and clinical burnout (29.3%).
  • Many screened positive for PTSD (23.0%) and Panic Disorder (20.3%).
  • One in three nurses reported having suicidal thoughts (ideation) (33%), 17% reported planning suicide, and 8% reported attempting suicide during their lifetime.

“Experts tell us that these numbers are higher than those for the general population and, in many cases, higher than the rates reported from a parallel survey of public safety personnel such as correctional workers, firefighters and paramedics,” noted Silas.

The top source of extreme stress nurses reported was short staffing with 83.4%, indicating that the regular core health staff is insufficient to meet the needs of patients. Physical assault was the most frequently reported type of traumatic event (92.7%), and nearly half of nurses (46.4%) reported exposure to physical assault 11 or more times.

“Our nurses are facing mental health challenges. The study results suggest cumulative exposures to potentially psychologically traumatic events and other work stressors are problematic for nurses. The results highlight a significant need to direct more attention to the well-being of Canadian nurses, including their mental health,” said Dr. Carleton, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Scientific Director of the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment.

Silas concluded, “The disturbing rates of mental illness in this study must be a call to action, not only to better support our frontline nurses, but to fix the chronic issues that have made health care workplaces unsafe for workers and our patients.”


For more information, please contact:

Lauren Snowball,, 613-868-5702
Ben René,, 613-406-5962

A Questions and Answers document has also been available for download. This document provides a plain-language summary of the report’s key findings.

Read the report