Building a career on being human

May 9, 2019 | Health

Firefighter. Nurse. Life saver.

Jim Johansson spent a decade jumping out of helicopters to fight forest fires before changing careers to deal with an entirely different kind of emergency: helping people society has all but written off.

“Some nurses love working with babies. Some love working with older people. I love working with people who have mental illness,” says Jim, a MacEwan University Bachelor of Science in Nursing grad. His second career began in a maximum-security forensic unit with patients facing a double stigma – a mental illness and a criminal record.

“A lot of individuals in these circumstances have a severe mental illness – often multiple diagnoses – and really negative experiences with people who have claimed to be there to help them,” says Jim. “Working in mental health means we can take time to help our patients face the difficult road ahead. We can build relationships, understand our patients’ backgrounds and be part of the change that happens in their lives.”

Some nurses love working with babies. Some love working with older people. I love working with people who have mental illness.

That change isn’t easy, so Jim makes sure to start at the very beginning. “I’m careful to see the person I’m working with as a human being first – not as their mental illness or their criminal record. I want to work with them to address the struggles they have – human to human.”

It’s an approach Jim also encourages his nursing students to take, now that’s he’s back at MacEwan teaching in the Faculty of Nursing. When leading second-year nursing students through their five-week mental health clinical rotation, Jim shows them that working in mental health isn’t scary.

“Mental health issues are everywhere, including surgery, emergency, and labour and delivery units. Even if you don’t choose to practice in a mental health setting, the skills you learn here are valuable wherever you go.”

So are the skills Jim learned out in the forest. “The biggest thing I took away from those years fighting fires is to be flexible and ready to take on new challenges as they come – it’s a lesson that has really influenced my nursing practice too.”

Jim Johansson is an alumnus of and faculty member in MacEwan University’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Learn more at

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