Heather, public health officer

"When we talk about recovery, being subject to that little bit of hate, that can wear away at you"

Heather’s story

My name is Dr. Heather Morrison, I am the Chief Public Health Officer here in Prince Edward Island. I’ve been in this role since 2007.

The Chief Public Health Officer in Prince Edward Island is a legislated position that’s really to protect and promote the health of Islanders.

I certainly was practicing in the emergency room as a physician right up until the beginning of the pandemic and even the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, but as the hours necessitated I be in the office more, I stopped doing the shifts in the ER. But I still miss it.

How did COVID impact you?

COVID impacted every single person. And it wasn’t as if I was talking about COVID impacting others. Everything that happened impacted me and my family, my friends, and my community as well.

It seemed to happen very quickly that health officers across the country were thrust into positions and into the media in a way that we hadn’t had before. And that’s not why we went into the roles. We had daily, sometimes more than that, press briefings.

For me, I was often with the premier, and really it was a partnership. And we came into people’s living rooms and people watched and listened to the updates.

I look back and I think that ability to communicate to the public and become a part of daily lives was something that was unexpected. But it came with a great responsibility, too. And we all felt the weight of that responsibility.

I think I was scared along with everyone else, but that’s when I think leadership is really important.

I was working really hard. And so was the team around me, but I think I was conscious of the impact on my family and my children. As hard as it was to be away from them so much, they also helped keep me grounded, too. Because I tried to make sure I could get home and say goodnight to them.

And I asked them at one point, “Do you want maman to give up her job? Because I will, if it’s that hard for you.”

And they said, “No, this is the time for you to be everybody else’s mother, not just ours.”

The vitriol that we would face at work. They were not immune to hearing what was happening. They would hear the police call me and tell me there was a threat. We would come home and there might be people, protesters outside wanting to film or yell at me. They would hear that.

And I think that was really, personally, a hard thing to go through.

I’ve heard other people talk about the fact that there’s like micro traumas, and that that part is different than burnout.

What were some of the unexpected challenges?

I think one of the hard days would be trying to leave my work amidst the protesters.

The protesters often came to the office and they would have megaphones or drums and they would yell outside our building. And that would impact everybody who worked in the building. Often, people would try to sit away from the window directly. They would move, change offices sometimes, just so they could get away from the noise. But sometimes, depending on where they were situated, it was more challenging to leave the office.

At one point, I was advised that — so that they didn’t find out what vehicle I was driving, et cetera — that someone else would drive my vehicle out of where it was parked. And they took me out in underground tunnels in our building, and brought the car around so I could get in safely into my vehicle.

They also suggested at one point I keep a wig in the car so that if I ever had to, you know, I guess disguise myself, I could do that.

When we talk about recovery, there is the burnout, but I think being subject to that little bit of hate all the way along, that can wear away at you. And the recovery from that, I think we need to think about.

And I would like to think that as we prepare for the next possible pandemic, that we figure out how we can manage that part differently.

How were you managing the mental health of your staff?

We talked about what it must be like having not been to war before, but we talked about maybe this is a little bit about what it’s like to work so closely with people for so many days and months and years.

We actually had a social worker as well on the team and which, we did it on purpose as well, to make sure that there was support for the team.

Everyone was comfortable enough to have those days where they cried or they were more emotional. And it felt safe to do that.

But I think in hindsight, we could have done a better job at making sure we had stronger mental health supports in place throughout, for the whole team.

And I had one member of the team say to me, when I talked about how valuable they are to me, they said we only kept working hard because we saw you work that hard.

How have you managed your own mental health?

I think it has taken me, you know, many months really since COVID, for me to realize that maybe I wasn’t doing a great job at taking care of my own mental health.

And realizing that I had become almost agoraphobic, not wanting to go out in public. Partly because I was told for a long time during COVID, I needed to be so careful. And I had police or RCMP or security calls regularly.

But that did impact me mentally much more than I thought. I didn’t do anything with my family out in public for two-and-a-half years. I will never get that back.

I realized I didn’t pay enough attention to that, and that recovery has been harder. I think now I’m in a better place, but it took a long time.

What changes would you make in a future pandemic?

I’m not sure if I will be around for the next pandemic. But, I think, trying to make sure that we always look out for each other and care for each other. And I think we really tried to do that.

But, I think before we go into the next pandemic, making sure that I’m quite clear about the limits of how we should push people. And I think it’s going to be really — it’s important that we talk about it and think about it.

Because part of what we need to do is making sure we’re focused on mental health resilience before we go to the next crisis.

A special note of thanks from Healthcare Salute

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers from across Canada have participated in our research on “COVID-19-Related Stress, Moral Injury and Minority Stress in Healthcare Workers and Public Safety Personnel in Canada.” Their struggles, heartbreak, courage, and resilience have inspired and moved us, and formed the bedrock of our research for this project. We are deeply grateful and committed to sharing their experiences.

We would also like to express our heartfelt thanks to our funders, the Public Health Agency of Canada, for giving us the opportunity and the autonomy to share our research with the larger Canadian audience without bias or restriction. This work would not have been possible without their generous and arms-length funding support. We also wish to thank our collaborators and supporters — McMaster University, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Homewood Health, and Homewood Research Institute.

After viewing, visit “Applying cultural competency in practice,” an education module for mental health providers and peer supporters.