May 10, 2022

UCalgary pilot clinic offers a new approach to emotional regulation

Mental health and wellness clinic offers new services to support Faculty of Nursing students, faculty and staff
LENS machine
LENS machine at the Nurse Practitioner Mental Health and Wellness Clinic uses neurofeedback to help self-regulate high emotions. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

What if someone told you there is a way your brain could “see itself” by using a state-of-the-art machine?

An innovative pilot clinic program at the University of Calgary aims to offer this potential benefit to students and faculty.

The Nurse Practitioner (NP) Mental Health and Wellness Clinic, currently piloting at the Faculty of Nursing, now offers a Low Energy Neurofeedback System (LENS) machine that uses a form of EEG biofeedback designed to help with emotional regulation, which allows people to better handle stress, especially in a high-pressure field such as nursing. 

Neurofeedback provides a brain-body connection that allows the brain to develop new neural pathways; essentially, it helps the brain to “self-correct.” This has been remarkably effective in treating anxiety, depression, emotional stress, ADHD/ADD and trauma, among other issues.

Only a small number of clinics in Calgary offer this service, and UCalgary Nursing’s new mental health clinic will offer it to nursing students, faculty and staff free of charge.

Sandy Johansson

Sandy Johansson, primary health care nurse practitioner at the Nurse Practitioner Mental Health and Wellness Clinic and Faculty of Nursing instructor.

Riley Brandt

Clinic launched during pandemic stress

“Nursing as a profession and a discipline is inherently stressful and demanding,” says UCalgary instructor Sandy Johansson, an NP and clinic lead.

As important as it is for nurses to provide care to their patients, they also need to take care of themselves. This was magnified by the emergence of COVID-19, which both highlighted the crucial role of nurses in the healthcare system and the impact of long-term stress for those in this discipline.  

This is the impetus that drove Johansson to establish the faculty’s new in-house mental health and wellness clinic. The clinic, which launched its pilot program in the fall of 2021, aims to provide internal resources to the Faculty of Nursing community to help bolster their own mental health and help them build resilience prior to entering a demanding profession.

Johansson notes that referrals and participation have increased dramatically compared to when the initiative started back in September 2021, with over 40 students and staff utilizing services at the clinic thus far.

Mental health – paying it forward

“There is a domino effect that occurs when a pilot can support the mental health of both students and staff, alike,” says Johansson. “Heathier 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. I’ve seen more students begin to recognize their own struggle and reach out for mental health support, rather than continue to struggle and wait till they're really in a more dire state or crisis.”  

Self-regulation in action

Johansson, who has been a nursing instructor since 2013, has a deep understanding of the demands in the faculty and the toll of nursing stress. For the past year, she has been managing the clinic and acting as a liaison to help the community. Resources offered at the clinic include one-on-one sessions, group-based activities, meditation and now the novel LENS service, which rolled out this spring.

“Self-regulation is your ability to manage your emotional states during the day,” Johansson says. “Some of us learn that quicker than others, while, if we're honest, some people really struggle with that, and this LENS machine helps the brain regulate your nervous system more optimally.” 

LENS machine

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

Riley Brandt

LENS uses sensors placed on the scalp to capture electrical electroencephalogram (EEG) activity; a computerized system mirrors this activity to the brain. Once the brain begins to “see itself,” it will make necessary changes (known as neuroplasticity) to allow it to function more optimally and increase its own flexibility. LENS acts as a natural approach for emotional regulation that pairs well with counselling and psychotherapy.

What’s next for the clinic? The pilot stage ends this August but with a strong interest and participation in the service, the clinic’s contract has been renewed for another year. Johansson is also open to having outside support — those in the nursing community who can volunteer to facilitate wellness activities like art therapy, yoga and other group-based activities to support student, faculty and staff mental health at the faculty.

“I think it's great that the Campus Mental Health Strategy has pushed so many initiatives through,” says Johansson. “I would love to see funding continue through that source or some other form.” She adds that, while the faculty is excited about continuing the program, its future depends on budget decisions and funding.

“My goal is to help you heal so that you can then help heal others. It’s so important for you to attend to your own wellness before you focus on the care of others,” she says. “Prioritizing self is not selfish; it is a necessary and an essential part of creating an overall state of wellness. Too often that gets forgotten or lost in the demands of academia, and the nursing profession.”