Hidden behind the walls, part two: ‘At CSC, they take the issue of mental health injuries very seriously.’

Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Herald File Photo

The federal government provides a variety of services for correctional staff impacted by operational stress injuries and is investing money in a national strategy for all public safety employees

The provincial and federal governments are aware of the challenges faced by correctional staff and are working on improving data collection and services for staff who suffer operational stress injuries (OSI).

The federal government sent a lengthy response and explanation of services available to employees of Correctional Services Canada (CSC), as well as an overview of plans to do more for Canadians who work in public safety. The comments were in response to a list of questions sent by the Herald last week in regards to a story about the prevalence of OSI in correctional staff and the perceived lack of support.

Operational Stress Injury is the umbrella term for any persistent psychological difficulties caused by duties performed by public safety staff in the line of work.

That includes anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions that interfere with daily functioning. While some OSI are caused by specific traumatic events, others come from a build-up of smaller incidents over time.

Incidence rates of PTSD alone have been estimated as high as 36 per cent amongst male correctional officers. In a 1992 survey of 122 correctional officers working in Ontario, 57 per cent said they suffered some mental health symptoms, including trouble sleeping, an exaggerated startle response, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, avoidance, flashbacks and survivor’s guilt.

While certain programs are available to members of the military and RCMP, both serving and former, they are not currently open to federal correctional officers,.

This is despite the fact that members of the military, RCMP and CSC are all federal employees, and military and RCMP members and veterans have lower rates of OSI than their correctional staff peers.

“I think (correctional officers) are sometimes forgotten about. In a sense, we’re hidden behind the walls. We’re not out in the general public like the fire and police are,” Saskatchewan Penitentiary correctional officer and union representative John Lambiris said.

In an emailed statement, the Government of Canada provided a response from both CSC and Public Safety Canada as to current and future initiatives intended to aid correctional staff and other public safety sector employees who suffer an OSI during the course of their work.

“Correctional Services Canada recognizes the challenges associated with working in a correctional environment and is committed to providing a workplace that is conducive to the health and safety of all of its employees, including their mental health,” the statement said.

“As part of their duties, CSC staff may witness stressful and traumatic events, including death and violence and, consequently, may be vulnerable to developing certain mental health issues, including PTSD.”

CSC said that it openly encourages its employees to seek assistance in dealing with any personal or work-related problems that may affect their well-being.

“At CSC, they take the issue of mental health injuries very seriously,” the statement said.

A number of programs are in place to support staff, including the Employee Assistance Program, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), Return to Work and Duty to Accommodate initiatives.

CISM, in particular, is a joint labour-management initiative supported by both parties, the statement said. The program has teams comprised of mental health professionals, chaplains and peers from various disciplines trained to conform to national standards. They are used whenever there is an incident that meets policy guidelines for the provision of services.

“The CISM team is composed of at least one peer-support person and one mental health professional trained to provide CISM,” CSC said.

“CISM services offered in CSC are largely peer-managed and peer-driven processes, which use mental health professionals for guidance when needed.”

According to the CSC’s website, CISM “may be provided during and/or immediately following an incident and/or subsequently when new elements arise, are added or resurface following the initial incident.”

That support includes individual and group support to share information and reactions about the incident, information and educational material on stress management and the establishment of a support network. It can also establish the need for subsequent “stress management intervention”, support, follow-up and referrals.

CISM does not involve therapy or counselling but counselling and follow-up prevention can be provided through the employee assistance program.

“Employees are also encouraged to recognize their own need for assistance and voluntarily contact a peer helper confidentially at any point in time during their career,” the CISM guidelines read.

Corrections employees also have access to a new training module from the Road to Mental Readiness.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Road to Mental Readiness is a training program originally developed by the Department of National Defence aimed at improving short-term performance and long-term mental health outcomes, reducing barriers to care and encouraging early access to care, providing the tools and resources required to manage and support employees who may be experiencing a mental illness and assisting supervisors in maintaining their own mental health as well as promoting positive mental health in their employees.

Participants are provided with resources about stigma and barriers to care, healthy coping strategies, mental toughness and a self-assessment tool with indicators of positive, poor and declining mental health. Other courses for leadership include topics such as workplace accommodations, the role of leadership in promoting positive mental health, ad hoc incident review and early recognition.

Already, the government said, 19 master trainers and 14 trainers from the corrections field have received training in The Road to Mental Readiness program and will be able to return to their workplaces with additional tools “to promote a positive, healthy work environment, thus contributing to the mental health and resilience of their colleagues.”

“On a broader level, all public safety officers play a critical role in keeping our communities safe from a range of threats, putting their lives on the line to protect us. In the course of their daily work, public safety officers are exposed to higher rates of traumatic events than the general public, which can put them at great risk for operational stress injuries (OSI), including post-traumatic stress injuries.”

That’s why, the government said, it is also planning to roll out new initiatives to help all public safety employees deal with the emotional stress of their jobs.

“Public safety officer is a broad term meant to include front-line personnel who ensure the safety and security of Canadians,” Public Safety Canada (PSC) said.

“Correctional services officers are included in this term, in addition to other first responders such as firefighters, police, and paramedics, search and rescue volunteers, border services officers, operational intelligence analysts, Indigenous emergency managers, and others working in the field.”

According to the statement provided by PSC, national consultations have been ongoing into the development of an action plan on post-traumatic stress injuries. That action plan is expected to launch in spring 2019.

The statement also touted the Budget 2018 initiative to fund a national research consortium to address the incidence of post-traumatic stress injuries among all public safety officers, particularly in communities outside major urban centres. The budget allocated $20 million over five years for that project. An additional $10 million over five years will be invested in the development of an Internet-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy pilot to provide greater access to care and treatment for public safety officers.

In Spring of 2019, the Minister of Health will be convening a conference in collaboration with national defence, veterans affairs and public safety, as well as Canada’s provinces and territories, to inform the development of a comprehensive federal framework to improve tracking of the incidence rate and socioeconomic costs of PTSD, establishing guidelines on diagnoses, treatment and management of PTSD and creating and distributing standardized educational materials to increase national awareness about diagnosing, treating and managing PTSD.

Federal correctional staff working in Saskatchewan are also entitled to Worker’s Compensation Board (WCB) benefits. In a brief statement about supports for provincial corrections staff, the province highlighted changes made in 2016 that are intended to remove barriers faced by workers diagnosed with OSI.

The change “establishes a rebuttable presumption for psychological injuries for workers exposed to traumatic events during the course of their employment,” the WCB website says.

“It means giving the benefit of the doubt to the worker when a claim for compensation has been made … It is presumed that a worker has sustained the injury as a result of their work unless there is evidence to the contrary.

Saskatchewan was the first jurisdiction to establish the presumption for all forms of psychological injury incurred through work, not just PTSD, and to apply it to all workers in the province.

While the amendment gives the worker the benefit of the doubt, all claims will still be adjudicated with the same process.

“The WCB will still need to determine that the predominant cause of the injury was through work or a work-related incident,” the WCB site says.

“In addition, the injury must be diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist based on the standards established in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

Like their federal counterparts, provincial corrections staff also has access to critical incident stress management and an employee and family assistance program, which provides confidential short-term counselling and a referral service to help employees.

Police and military members also have critical incident stress debriefing and programming, as well as road to mental readiness programming and employee assistance programs.

Military and RCMP serving members and veterans, though, also have access to a network of OSI clinics and operational stress injury programs that include peer-to-peer and group support, along with individual counselling.

Those clinics don’t serve correctional officers.

Sometimes, that peer support can make all the difference.

“If you’re an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic comes to you and says, ‘hey, you can get through this,’ that’s not going to be very impactful,” paramedic and activist Nicholas Hennick said after a meeting with correctional officers last Wednesday.

“But if you’re an alcoholic and an alcoholic tells you, ‘I got through this, you can too,’ there’s something magical about that.

“These are people that have dealt with it, that have struggled, that have been to that darkness and somehow got their way out of it by reaching out to other people. There is power in that.”

In the original list of questions submitted to the federal government, the Herald asked why correctional officers were not included in the OSI clinics.

In its lengthy response, the Government of Canada didn’t provide an answer.

This is part two of a planned three-part series looking at the prevalence of OSI, available programs and obstacles to getting help. Part three will look at correctional officers’ lived experiences working with programs that are available and what solutions they would like to see going forward. For part one, see Saturday’s Daily Herald.