“It happened right after work, I was completely overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do or where to go to solve my problem. It just felt like my heart was pounding out of my chest, I was shaky, I was having difficulties calming down.”
Lizanne Gobeil is describing her first panic attack, which happened after a rough day at Saskatchewan Penitentiary where she works as an Aboriginal Programs Officer. That day she had experienced a situation where she felt her safety was at risk and she didn’t feel supported in her workplace. Her panic attack, however, was a symptom of a much bigger problem she was facing.
Lizanne describes her job as not only a facilitator of programs but also a counselor and advocate for the offenders in her class who need it.
“You’re getting into childhood traumas, abuse, and abandonment issues. You’re helping them work through that and link how those things affect their current behaviour and what brought them into prison. As a facilitator you are constantly hearing stories. It just drains you and takes a lot out of you.”
Like many people who have a mental health injury, Lizanne felt her symptoms building up over time but she wasn’t connecting the dots between her physical symptoms and her mental health.
“For me, headaches were a really big problem. I actually had a CAT scan done because they were so bad, but I still didn’t chalk it up to stress. Also, I began to notice once I completed a program it was like my body would give out and I would get sick. I would experience flu-like symptoms such as nausea and extreme fatigue. So it was like I would go through a high-stress period, then when it was done I would get sick, and then I’d get right back into high stress.”
Lizanne’s personal life was also affected. She was experiencing isolation, and lost touch with many of her supports during this difficult time.
After her first panic attack, Lizanne went to talk to her doctor, who recommended she take eight weeks off from work. This unfortunately caused Lizanne to have a panic attack on the spot because she couldn’t afford to be off work for that long. Instead, she was able to work with her management team to take one month off. It wasn’t long enough because three months later, she was off again. A clear diagnosis has been difficult for Lizanne because in addition to having depression and experiencing burn out, she also suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.
“I think it was hard for them to differentiate what is my illness and what is the burn out happening.”
With the help of her doctor, Lizanne has been able to alleviate many of her symptoms including the headaches and flu-like symptoms she was experiencing between programs. She has also been accommodated in her workplace, so she can slow down her work load a little bit to ease some of her everyday stress.
“I have been able to reduce the number of programs I do. Before, we would run seven sessions a week, one session would be a morning and another session would be an afternoon. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else. I felt like it was best if I was able to cut that down to five so I can manage my workload better. That has helped.”
Although Lizanne is doing pretty well, she does still have to cope with a system that she feels isn’t designed to handle workplace mental health injuries.
“I use all of my vacation leave. I call them my sick days, which sucks because then I don’t really get a vacation but that is what gets me through the year.”
She also explained that one of the most important ways she maintains her mental health is by applying for leave with income averaging, which has been approved for her the last two years and has been a huge help for her.
While Lizanne feels that her managers have been very supportive, she knows they don’t fully understand what she is experiencing simply because they can’t if they’ve never felt that way themselves.
“It’s hard to understand all of the symptoms and how it works; how you can be on your game for two days, then off your game for two weeks, and there’s no way to really tell when you are going to have a lower day or a higher day. Sometimes I don’t think management can fully understand how it can mess with you.”
Lizanne’s coworkers – on the other hand – get it. She knows some of them battle depression, anxiety, and other issues, so they are completely open with one another and support each other.
As far as maintaining her mental health goes, Lizanne has established a healthy lifestyle and educates those around her about her illness.
“I do deliver programming so I use the skills on myself. The cognitive skills like questioning your thinking and things like that, they are helpful. I also go see a counselor once a month just to keep on track. And I make sure I go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends. Educating others about what depression and anxiety are and how they affect you makes a huge difference for me as well because I’m not scared to talk about it. Are we scared to talk about cancer? No. Mental illness is just another illness and if we talk about it and educate people about it, it will be easier for those suffering with it.”
Lizanne also leans on her support system when she is in need. Her family, fiancé, and co-workers are always willing to help.