It was just another day for George Manthorne, a Correctional Officer at Springhill Institution, when he headed in to start his shift on an August afternoon in 2002. Little did he know that just hours later he would experience an event that would change his life.
George and two other officers were posted to the inside yard filled with about 200 inmates when one inmate attacked another by cutting his throat. At the same time, two other inmates were stabbed. What had been a situation under control quickly spiralled out of control, leaving George and his two colleagues fearful of an inmate takeover.
“There were four of us and 200 of them. The inmates wouldn’t lock up or leave the yard, so it could have been a really bad situation. If they wanted to take over the prison, they could have.”
Backup officers quickly arrived and the inmates were returned to their cells after ignoring several orders to clear the yard. As a member of the Emergency Response Team at the time, George spent the rest of his shift dealing with the inmates involved in the violence. He had started work that day at 2:00 p.m. and didn’t leave until 9:00 a.m. the next morning. He was exhausted, but saw it as just another day at the office. As it turns out, it wasn’t.
“Three or four weeks later I started to withdraw. I would come home from work, talk to my wife and kids for a few minutes, and then go hide in my bedroom. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I started having trouble falling asleep, and when I did sleep, I would have crazy, off-the-wall dreams that would wake me up. Then my mind would start racing and I couldn’t fall back asleep. I started having anxiety attacks all the time – in my car, at home, around other people – but ironically, not at work. I quickly became more and more depressed and negative, and could barely bring myself to do anything. On my days off I just wanted to sit in my room and be alone.”
By this point, it was about two and a half months after the incident in the yard. George’s wife had been pushing him to see his doctor long before he noticed anything wrong, a seemingly common theme among those who experience mental health injuries. With her urging, George spoke with his Employee Assistance Program Referral Agent at work who suggested he consult a psychologist. He also went to see his family doctor. George was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his work and prescribed anti-depressant medication.
“I don’t think it was that one event that caused this. I think mine was cumulative. Throughout my career I was involved in the only murder at Springhill Institution, all sorts of assaults, and suicides by inmates and coworkers. It’s the reality we deal with doing what we do in corrections. I have no idea why the incident in the yard was the turner for me, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
According to George and his experience working in an institution for 18 years, workplace mental health injuries are common at CSC, but most people don’t want to admit they are struggling. The stigma attached to saying you need help is enough to force people to hide what they are feeling, he says.
“As Correctional Officers we have this attitude that we are tough, that nothing gets to us, and that we are made of stone. A lot of people can’t admit to themselves or others that they have a problem and that’s the biggest stumbling block to seeking the help they need. We need to change that culture. We need to change that attitude.”
George has taken steps to help that process along for his colleagues at Springhill and others across the country. At his site, he isn’t shy about sharing his story with his colleagues. Everyone knows he has PTSD and why. He tells everyone that he is always available to talk, and will answer any questions they have.
“I think the more we talk about this issue and the more people who put a face to it, the easier it will be for the people who do need help to step up and ask for it. Hiding it doesn’t help anybody.”
As well, years ago George created a private Facebook group for correctional employees who are struggling with mental health injuries. It’s a safe place for people to chat with others who understand what they are going through.
“We’ve got staff from all across Canada. We take you at your word that you have a mental health injury and just want to talk. A lot of people post about their experiences and have said how helpful it is to talk to others who get it. Anyone who wants to join can email me at work and I will add you to the group.”
It’s been thirteen years since George stood in the middle of that yard at Springhill Institution wondering what the next moment would bring. During that time he has managed his PTSD with anti-depressants and the occasional visit with a psychologist. He tried to wean himself off the medication twice, but after experiencing two family crises that made him feel like his world was crumbling beneath him, he asked to be put back on the medication. Today he is taking the highest dose possible.
“I’m not ashamed of being on medication. My psychologist said I shouldn’t try to wean off it again until I’m retired and give myself time to decompress from work, but I have no problem staying on it for the rest of my life because the alternative isn’t very pleasant. Now, if something negative happens in my life I can deal with it like anyone else would. It doesn’t knock me right off the rails like it would before.”
George acknowledges that he has been lucky to receive the support he needs to get better. At one point he waited 14 months to see a psychiatrist because there are only three working in his area, but his medication supported him during that time. He was also fortunate that his medication kicked in fairly quickly and has worked steadily for him since. He knows this isn’t the case for everyone.
When asked if he has ever considered leaving corrections, George’s answer is a flat out no. He believes in what he does and he believes he’s making a difference in the lives of many inmates. As the son of a Correctional Officer, he has seen the impact this work can have.
“My dad had a guy on his caseload who today I consider to be my brother. He went from being a teenager doing life in prison to an ordained Minister who is working for CSC out west in one of the prisons. He was at my wedding, my brother’s wedding, my sister’s wedding, my mother’s funeral. He is part of the family. And I love telling that story to coworkers because they look at me like I have three heads. I’m not naive to think we can help every inmate, but I know we can help some. I’ve seen it happen. That’s why I’m still here.”
Please visit the Workplace Mental Health Injuries infonet page for more information about this important topic as well as resources available to you.