May 6, 2024

UCalgary Nursing Nurse Practitioner Mental Health & Wellness Clinic creates safe haven for faculty community

Created by nurses, for nurses and those who support them, this innovative clinic brings evidenced-based services and practices in-house at the Faculty of Nursing
Four women seated in a room
From left, Sandy Johansson, NP, Amanda Loates RN, MEd, Dr. Jacqueline Smith RN, PhD and Kimberly Shapkin, MSN, NP, GNC(c) Lynda Sea, Faculty of Nursing

When Amanda Loates, MEd’23, BN’10, BA’04, an RN and UCalgary Nursing alum, was asked to give advice to new nursing graduates, she said: “Care for yourself as much as you're caring for others, if not more. You are the most important ‘tool’ in your work; your body, mind and spirit.” 

This advice is foundational to the mission of the NP Mental Health & Wellness Clinic, officially and permanently housed within the Professional Faculties Building. From the early groundwork in 2019 to where it is five years later, the clinic continues to honour not just academic and professional excellence, but also the personal wellness of the students, faculty and staff of UCalgary Nursing. 

“Nursing as a profession and a discipline is inherently stressful and demanding,” said UCalgary instructor Sandy Johansson, a nurse practitioner (NP) and clinic lead (currently on leave), in 2022, a year after the clinic was launched as a pilot project. 

“There is a domino effect that occurs when [we] can support the mental health of both students and staff alike. Healthier faculty and staff are better able to support students. Better supports for nursing students’ own mental health — now — helps them down the road as they treat patients.” 

That is key to the clinic’s success says Dr. Jacqueline Smith, RN, BN’09, PhD’15, a UCalgary Nursing associate professor and wellness counsellor. 

“It was created by nurses, for nurses. We understand and support through the lens of our own lived experiences as nurses and clinicians and through our deep commitment, training and investment in evidenced-based wellness practices.” 

LENS machine

The LENS machine at the Nurse Practitioner Mental Health and Wellness Clinic uses neurofeedback to help self-regulate high emotions.

Riley Brandt

Early days provided foundation and infrastructure 

Smith was UCalgary’s Nursing’s inaugural director of mental health and wellness when the faculty became the first to formally adopt the university’s Campus Mental Health Strategy. Smith was heavily invested in developing infrastructure and programming to make wellness accessible and visible in the three-year initiative. 

A needs assessment in the first year identified opportunities to understand what makes students, faculty and staff thrive and the clinic has worked diligently to achieve those key recommendations of changing academic expectations and program structure; allowances for mental health and sick days; and student wellness supports and resources. 

The three-person team, which includes Smith, Loates and Kimberly Shapkin, NP, as acting director, work collaboratively on a multitude of resources including one-to-one counselling, nursing-specific wellness coaching, and tools like HeartMath that develops emotional regulation techniques, LENS [Low Energy Neurofeedback System] that uses a form of EEG activity to allow the brain to function more optimally and increase its own flexibility, and tapping to acquire stress management tools (Emotional Freedom Technique-Tapping) to support your emotional health and well-being. 

“In the clinic we have tried to create a place that is safe and welcoming,” explains Shapkin, who is also an associate professor (teaching) at UCalgary Nursing. “We strive to do by creating a space that is comforting and appeals to a person’s five senses. 

“When a person first walks in, they see a space that is modern and comfortable (sight); we have a diffuser running to offer a nice scent (smell); quiet background music (hear); and tea, coffee and snacks to appeal to taste. We also have a calm room that has a wall fireplace and a comfortable lounge chair, yoga mats and colouring books.” 

NP Clinic team with Bill Zheng and Rob Gottschalk

In May 2024, Robert Gottchalk (pictured far right) CEO of the Canadian Nurses Foundation visited UCalgary and toured the clinic with Dr. Jacqueline Smith, Kimberly Shapkin, acting director of clinic and Bill Zheng, nursing student.

Nursing students benefit from evidence-based expertise 

Bill Zheng, a third-year nursing student and founder of Radicare Ventures, a social enterprise startup working to promote the dignity and wellness for those in Calgary experiencing poverty, accessed the clinic in his second year. “I found myself feeling disappointed, frustrated and restless,” he confesses. 

“I was balancing my company development with early clinicals, and on Sundays and Mondays, I did not sleep well. I was so worried about missing clinical and my thoughts were just racing in my head. I reached out to the clinic for support.” 

Zheng, a self-proclaimed skeptic, met Smith for weekly therapy sessions where he learned about coping skills, breathing, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and LENS. 

“What I really found helpful was the breathing and tapping,” he says, adding that he read the evidence on these modalities before he and Smith focused on the two areas. “I appreciated the fact that I had control — as I should as a client — over what I wanted to engage in and what I didn't. I liked the fact that Dr. Smith respected my decision when I told her I wanted to mainly focus on tapping and breathing exercises.” 

Smith’s work also includes students who have been placed on medical leave, supporting their day-to-day wellness over time in preparation for their return to practice and organizing monthly wellness workshops (Wellness Wednesdays) with the goal of introducing new evidence-based self-care practices. Loates also focuses on student needs, providing coaching, skill-building collective activities such as neurodiversity meetups, and an art group.  

Team continues to expand tools 

“There are so many new things we're working on as well,” she says, including a peer-to-peer support program that has just received a $15,000 grant from the Canadian Nurses Foundation. “A student-led initiative will facilitate connection between student wellness champions and the student body.” The group is also hoping to offer more support for the 350-plus UCalgary Nursing graduate students. 

Shapkin feels lucky to be part of such an innovative clinic. “This is an amazing team of nurses who are caring, dedicated and inspiring,” she says. “As the NP, I am involved with Fitness to Practice: this occurs when a student may need to take time off to focus on their own health or when they return to clinical practice.”  

Shapkin offers care to students, staff and faculty through an integrative health lens. 

“Each person’s health journey is unique and by addressing their physical, mental and functional goals we can support them to continue caring for others. The brain-body connection is powerful!” 

Self-care important to clinic practitioners 

While the pace is busy, Loates says the variety in offerings is important. “It allows staff, students and faculty members to engage with wellness at their own pace, in a way that makes the most sense for them, which is a strong advantage to our approach.  

“There has been a steady stream of referrals since I joined in September,” adds Loates, “which speaks to increased awareness of our services and the need. I have yet to find the balance and am working on my own self-care/community-care practices to enhance my energy, but overall the work is deeply rewarding.”  

Smith agrees. “Working with people and their emotional struggles can be exhausting, yet I am committed to my own self-care practices, which support healthy co-regulated interactions with my clients. 

“It is energizing to see a student move from hopelessness to hope and re-enter the nursing program following a medical leave. I am proud of how we support clients with emotional regulation tools and skills to befriend their nervous system and navigate life with a new tool belt." 

"If we don’t normalize the continuum of wellness and mental health, if we don’t have this as a foundation for all we are doing, then we are failing.” 

For his part, Zheng is grateful for this resource within his own faculty, given the backlog at UCalgary’s Student Wellness and also the specific focus of by nurses, for nurses. 

“Nurses — as we have learned in Term 4 — can and are capable of delivering advanced, evidence-based psychotherapy to clients. It’s really cool to see what I have learned in theory come out in practice.”