Correctional Manager Michael Doucette has experienced several traumatic events as a result of his 23-year-long career at Atlantic Institution and volunteer position as a paramedic in his community. Throughout most of that time, he didn’t feel like these events were having a negative effect on him. He approached them with the same attitude that many people do – ‘I’m tough. I can handle this. I signed up for this.’ But that all changed five years ago during a routine night shift when he was the manager on duty.
“An inmate had been severely assaulted and stabbed in the neck. He was bleeding out. As we were waiting for the ambulance to arrive, two officers were plugging the holes in the inmate’s neck and the whole time he was looking at me. He asked me to call his mother. I will never forget the look in his eyes.”
At the time, Michael didn’t think much about the event. As traumatic as it was, he had experienced many of them before and this was nothing new for him. Two weeks later, however, things started to change. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and was seeing the inmate’s face in the faces of other people. Still, Michael refused to acknowledge what was happening to him.
“I think that objectively I knew what was happening to me, but I still felt like I could deal with it on my own. I didn’t want to admit that my job had finally gotten to me. I didn’t want to look weak.”
This, says Michael, is common amongst frontline workers in corrections. There is a stigma attached to admitting you have experienced a mental health injury. You’re seen as less than, a system abuser, an excuse seeker. It’s all part of the culture that he and many other frontline workers have said exists.
Over the course of several months, Michael’s symptoms continued to get worse. He isolated himself from family and friends. Experienced personal troubles at home. Became angry, irritable, and anxious. And had trouble sleeping and eating. While he admits he was in denial about it, his loved ones were not. They encouraged him to seek help through the Employee Assistance Program. From there, Michael was referred to his family doctor who referred him to a psychiatrist. Almost one year after the incident in the institution that night, Michael was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Despite having worked throughout the course of that year, Michael’s psychiatrist suggested that he take some time off work to take care of himself and recover. He was off for two years. Since then, he has returned to work and is, in his words, relatively back to being his old self. He’s thriving in his career as a Correctional Manager, but in ways he never would have expected before his diagnosis.
“This has brought me an empathy for my fellow staff members that I didn’t have before. In my role as a manager, I’m better able to be a mentor and coach as opposed to just a boss. The fact that I’ve gone through this has given me a sort of credibility with staff members suffering from the same things. There’s an attitude amongst correctional workers that you can’t understand what it’s like if you’ve never been through it. Well, I’ve been through it and I understand.”
In Michael’s experience, workplace mental health injuries are highly prevalent at CSC. He says that anecdotally, for every person that shares their story and seeks help, there are three who don’t.
“We have people struggling to cope on their own. Whether it’s with alcohol, drugs, or isolating themselves, they are doing things to try and get through their days. Just look at the divorce rate amongst correctional staff – it’s sky rocketing. There’s a reason for that. People are suffering, but either don’t recognize it or refuse to recognize it because of the stigma attached to it or a lack of education about the issue.”
As a manager, Michael sees himself and all other managers as essential to addressing workplace mental health injuries at CSC.
“Staff are looking for empathy. They are looking for the stigma to go away. As managers we can’t change how people look at things but we can change how we talk about the issue. Staff with mental health injuries are looking to be treated with compassion and respect. They want to be treated the same as someone who broke a leg skiing or got diabetes and needed time off to manage that. Until we open up the dialogue and approach this issue with professionalism and respect, nothing will change.”
There are other barriers as well that Michael feels are working against staff who are struggling. Workers’ Compensation Boards vary from province to province, he says, making it so that some workers experience better or less treatment than others. This is a significant issue because it ultimately forces employees to choose between their financial well-being and their mental health.
“The only thing more stressful than having a mental health injury is having a mental health injury and not knowing if you can pay your mortgage. So, folks who really shouldn’t be working continue to because their claims didn’t go through or their compensation will not allow them to provide for their families. Putting food on the table takes precedence over taking time off, which is a big issue.”
Michael believes that working with our provincial partners to develop a more standardized approach for Workers’ Compensation would benefit CSC employees a great deal, ensuring everyone receives the same level of treatment regardless of where they work. As well, he says that mental health services for Correctional Managers is a gap at CSC that also requires some attention.
“As a manager, whenever we have an incident in the institution, part of my responsibility is to make sure staff are aware of EAP and to organize a CISM briefing. In my case with the incident that caused me to develop PTSD, I organized a briefing but as a manager was asked not to attend. This is done so that staff can open up without their boss in the room. That’s understandable, but there’s nothing really available for us. Management looks at us as officers, and staff look at us as management. We are kind of orphaned when it comes to this. Services available aren’t geared toward us. I don’t think it’s a conscious omission – it’s just an oversight, but it’s one we need to look at.”
Despite the improvements Michael says need to be made to better support employees dealing with mental health injuries, he remains positive about the work that has been done thus far. The Commissioner’s Steering Committee on Workplace Mental Health Injuries is a silver lining in all of this that has Michael feeling hopeful about what is to come for CSC employees.
“We’ve needed to talk about this issue for a long time and that’s why I’m so happy to be involved. If I share my story, maybe someone else will step forward and share theirs. Maybe someone will finally seek the help they need. We can’t ignore this anymore. It’s a real issue. And it’s affecting the Service.”