Up until nine years ago, Bowden Institution Correctional Officer Ken Watt was confident in his job, felt like he could handle any situation and inmate, and was completely comfortable in his decade-long career in corrections. That all changed when he found out that a group of inmates had ordered a hit on him to be assaulted at the institution.
“It destroyed me,” he says. “I was devastated. It was like my emotions were going a hundred miles an hour. I was scared for my life, but I was also worried that my colleagues thought I was a dirty CX. I had no idea what was going on, and I had no one I could turn to for help. I was lost.”
Ken wasn’t dirty. He was framed by a group of inmates to cover up illegal activities they were conducting within the institution. They also reported Ken as having ordered a hit on an inmate, which had resulted in a severe beating. Ken was investigated by the RCMP for this, causing a great deal of stress and worry for him. Ken’s reputation was everything to him. He was respected, he was trusted, he was well liked, and he was proud of his work with CSC. The thought of losing that was devastating to him.
Ironically, Ken was saved that day by an inmate who told another Correctional Officer that Ken was a target. Still, the damage was already done.
“You get to a point where you are so emotional and so out of it that it’s almost like an out of body experience. It’s like you’re a third person to yourself. Everything in your body is doing things you don’t understand. As I was walking out of work that night, I was asking ‘Why me? Is this really happening? I know these guys. They know me. This can’t be happening.’ I thought I was losing my job. I thought I was losing everything. That experience triggered it all.”
Ken was off work for three months following that incident using sick leave and income averaging. He couldn’t return to work due to the symptoms he was dealing with at home. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, would shake uncontrollably, and cramp up so much that he could barely move. He started drinking too much, had difficulty breathing, and couldn’t do basic activities like going to the grocery store for fear of someone hurting him. He also experienced panic attacks that brought him to the hospital, twice. Ken’s doctor prescribed him various medications to try to alleviate some of the symptoms, which ended up backfiring.
“I was on blood pressure medication, anxiety medication, and anti-depressants. He just kept pumping me full of whatever so that I could cope. Then one day I went to work and basically passed out. That’s when my doctor suggested I speak with a counsellor.”
Ken was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression as a result of his experience at work. He was prescribed medication suitable to his condition and needs, which he still takes today. It didn’t come without challenges, though. Struggles arose as the cost of therapy and medications added up quickly. While some of it was covered by his insurance plan, waiting for claims to be processed and returned was a strain on Ken’s financial situation. He also found it difficult to manage doctors’ appointments with his work schedule, which he describes as a juggling act.
Still, through counselling and working with an Occupational Therapist, Ken was able to learn the skills he needed to be able to function properly and manage his symptoms. The therapist physically held his hand at Walmart one day, reassuring him that the people standing next to him in line were not going to hurt him and coaching him through the experience. He learned deep breathing exercises to deal with panic attacks as they arose. He started to meditate, exercise, eat healthy foods, and establish a strong network of close friends and family who could act as a support system when needed. Ken was making good progress, and even became a Correctional Manager. Still, he knew he wasn’t quite there and decided to take a step back so that he could continue to work on his mental health.
“I knew that to be fair to staff and management, I needed to remove myself from that position,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared to be in it at that point. I needed to work with specific people who knew me, who understood my situation, and who I felt most comfortable with. The Warden, Dave Pelham, was great. He held the spot for me, he supported me, and he said it was there for me when I wanted it. But I needed to stay at the CX level.”
Just as things were improving for Ken, he experienced yet another traumatic event. Two years ago he was conducting a cell extraction as a member of the Emergency Response Team (ERT). Within what seemed like seconds to Ken, he found himself pinned on the floor with the inmate’s throat pressed up against his mask. This particular inmate had a violent history, leaving Ken convinced that he was done for.
“In that half a second that he was on top of me, time stood still. It felt like a year. I honest to God said to myself, ‘This is it. He’s got me.’ I gave up as I was unable to move. I made peace with God and accepted that it was my day to go. It was another out of body experience for me.”
Thanks to his fellow ERT members, Ken walked away from that incident with torn ligaments and tendons in his arms, a fractured ankle, and a concussion. The mental effects, however, set in right away and were far worse than any of the physical ones.
“I was full of anxiety, nervous, not eating properly, not taking care of myself, seeking isolation, pushing away my loved ones. All of the same things were happening to me again,” he says. “I knew I needed to see a counsellor because I was having violent thoughts and wanted to hurt someone. I was desperate for help because I was afraid of what I might do.”
When Ken sat down with the psychologist, he recalls that he couldn’t feel his legs because he was so full of anxiety. But what the psychologist said to Ken next made all the difference.
“He said ‘You’re not crazy. This is PTSD. You’re reliving what happened to you and you don’t know what to do with your feelings about it.’ He reassured me that what I was experiencing was normal in these situations, and that this is what happens to people when something happens to them that is traumatic and they can’t understand.”
Today, Ken continues to manage his symptoms. He takes medication and uses the skills he’s learned from counsellors along the way to get through his days. He also shares his story as much as possible to let people know they are not alone.
“At CSC, there is a stigma attached to admitting you have a mental health issue,” he says. “You’re supposed to be tough and not be bothered by what you see and what happens to you. But since sharing my story, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who used to throw up before work. I’m not the only one who couldn’t make it to work due to crippling anxiety. And I know there are others out there who are hiding what they are feeling. I want them to know that there is help for them if they reach out. I want them to know that things can get better.”
Ken is interested in starting a support group for CSC employees in and around Bowden Institution. If you are interested, he welcomes your emails and phone calls.
Please visit the Workplace Mental Health Injuries infonet page for more information about this important topic as well as resources available to you.