MONTREAL -- Quebec's healthcare workers' mental health was damaged during the first wave of COVID-19, but many found ways to adapt.

A mobile app launched in May has been able to track their condition step-by-step for weeks.

The group's portrait, which researchers compiled, is nuanced: while 15 per cent of caregivers approached the second wave with real psychological distress, the majority of them have adapted, despite adversity, researchers note.

Montreal researchers unveiled preliminary results of their study on Wednesday, which are due to be published soon in a scientific journal.

With this data, "We want to shed light on the debate," but above all, find solutions to better help health-care workers, said Dr. Nicolas Bergeron, psychiatrist and researcher at the Center hospitalier de l'Universite de Montreal (CHUM).

His team included Steve Geoffrion, researcher at the Research Center of the University Institute in Mental Health of Montreal, which developed the mobile application. The app was first created for a project on psychological distress of firefighters, then adapted for medical personnel.

"The mental health of health-care workers has always been a taboo," said Geoffrion. "There is this culture that you have to be strong to do this job, and not to complain. A health worker can also be in distress and be tired."

The mobile application allowed healthcare workers to complete a questionnaire every week. It also had another use: helping these workers monitor their mental health to get through the crisis, by realizing what they were going through.

After a day in an emergency room, a nurse could thus answer a series of questions relating to her state of stress, her exposure to critical events as well as the social support she received.

The researchers said this gave a unique and valuable dimension to the project: unlike several studies that assess the mental health of caregivers at a specific point in time, this study spanned 17 weeks between May and September, with the help of nearly 400 participants occupying various types of jobs in different workplaces, including hospitals and CHSLDs.

These workers have experienced fear, the questioning of their way of working, and very difficult situations, said Bergeron.

Despite this, "85 per cent of the health-care workers followed managed to overcome the stressful experiences of the first wave. They ended up adapting."

He added a caution, noting that their adaptation to the crisis does not mean that they have not experienced anything difficult and that they have not felt distress. "Some lived it for several weeks, but eventually got over it," he said.

Moreover, in June, about a third of the participants displayed psychological distress with reactions of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, which lasted between two and four weeks, Geoffrion explained.

Moreover, 15 per cent of these health workers had to face the second wave by being already in a situation of mental distress. The researchers said it is a "fairly significant" percentage of workers, who deserve "all our attention, to prevent it from becoming chronic."

For the researchers, the preliminary results have been rather encouraging and demonstrate the resilience of health-care workers.

They also wish to underline certain observations: experiencing distress in a context as stressful and unusual as the health crisis is "normal and expected." This distress is not synonymous with a mental disorder, nor a sign that workers who experience it are bound to develop one.

Another interesting result is that the trajectories of these caregivers have not been identical.

They report that for some, the levels of distress remained high, while others began their period of distress at the end of the period.

They are now interested in what type of job was more at risk and which situations left more marks.

Why did some caregivers experience this intense period more difficult than others? Perhaps they did not have the required support, said Geoffrion, who specified that the whole issue of support is crucial.

-- this report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2021.