‘We’re hidden behind the walls’

Saskatchewan Penitentiary. (Herald File Photo)

Correctional officers have operational stress injury rates higher than military veterans or police officers yet federal officers can’t access the same specialized programs available to their federally-employed counterparts in the military or RCMP.

Chris Mudjar knows about the mental health impacts of working as a correctional officer all too well.

Mudjar served inside Saskatchewan Penitentiary for 27 years before an incident meant he couldn’t do the job anymore.

He took two years off, and tried to go back. He was on worker’s compensation, and did everything he was supposed to do.

“I found that I was unable to do the job, again,” he said.

“The PTSD was coming back.”

Mudjar came across a support group. He was one of the first members of the local chapter of Operational Stress Injuries Canada (OSI-CAN), an initiative of the Royal Canadian Legion and of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Saskatchewan Division, that looks to use peer and professional support to help first responders, military veterans and public safety employees, such as correctional officers, through their struggles.

Operational Stress Injuries are any persistent psychological difficulties resulting from operational duties performed in the line of work. The term includes anxiety disorders, depression, 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.

Mudjar had to retrain. He went to school and graduated from an addictions counselling program and started a new career.

He said he couldn’t have done it without OSI-CAN, even though, at first, he was reluctant to reach out to get help.

“I was diagnosed later in my career, but it was repetitive, over and over again traumatic experiences. By the time I reached out, I was already broken down,” he said.

“You don’t have to be like that.”

Mudjar’s experience working in corrections isn’t. Statistics are hard to come by, but the Government of Canada has estimated that as many as 36 per cent of male correctional officers have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

That 36 per cent number came from testimony at a House of Commons committee from Lori MacDonald, an assistant deputy minister of Public Safety Canada.

While it varies from study to study and situation to situation, MacDonald said that only seven per cent of police officers have the same diagnosis.

The numbers for both professions could be even higher.

“We would identify this area as a gap, because we don’t have good data collection,” she said.

“People don’t always identify because of the stigma associated with it. People know it’s personal, private information and they don’t want it known.”

While the official numbers of correctional officers with OSI does hover between 20 and 36 per cent, depending on the source, Mudjar estimates the real number — including the number who haven’t come forward — is much higher.

“There are a lot of staff members going through the motions and just plugging away, not having any help to address the issues.”

While some support is available through OSI-CAN, correctional officers employed by the federal government are at a disadvantage compared to some of their federally-employed military and first-responder peers, despite having drastically higher rates of mental health difficulties. If they haven’t reached out to OSI-CAN, it’s likely they may not have access to a peer support network at all.

A network of OSI clinics exists throughout Canada, serving Canadian Forces members and veterans, as well as serving and former RCMP members.

The clinics offer outpatient treatments such as one-on-one or group sessions, and can offer referrals to addiction treatment or other specialized services.

The clinics, however, don’t serve correctional officers.

That’s not all. Both the RCMP and the military have established, operational stress injury programs. It includes peer-to-peer and group support, along with individual counselling.

The RCMP launched the program as a part of a 2014 mental health strategy, which also included a road to mental readiness program. Both initiatives were based off of similar efforts established and showing success in the military.

But again, such a program does not exist for officers working in federal corrections. They have access to debriefing and follow-ups after critical incidents, benefits plans that include counselling and the ability use provincial worker’s compensation programs, but unlike their counterparts, there is no dedicated OSI program for federal corrections.

According to the federal government’s own numbers, about 20 per cent of veterans have a diagnosed mental health condition, including depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Thirty-six per cent of serving corrections officers have PTSD alone.

It’s not a new issue. Federal reports dating back to as early as 1992 can be found on the Government of Canada website. Those reports detail a rising percentage of correctional officers facing issues such as PTSD.

In the document published in 1992 by the FORUM on corrections research was based on in-depth interviews with 122 correctional officers from Ontario, working at a variety of institutions with varying levels of security.

It found that only two per cent of officers were not exposed to traumatic events in their work environment. Many of the officers interviewed had been exposed to multiple traumatic events over the course of their careers.

Like in other reports, the author estimates the numbers could be even higher.

“It is the author’s opinion that the figures given here may underestimate actual rates of exposure, as officers were often reluctant to remember these psychologically painful events,” the report said.

While only 17 per cent of that survey had been diagnosed with PTSD, 57 per cent reported a variety of symptoms, including sleep disturbance, exaggerated startle response and nightmares. Other reported symptoms included difficulty concentrating, avoidance, numbing of responsiveness, flashbacks and survivor’s guilt.

Just under half, 47 per cent, said their exposure to traumatic events affected their families, pointing to mood swings, irritability and general anxiety.

It wasn’t the last time a survey into the mental health of correctional officers would show a significant portion of the workforce impacted. Canadian Occupational Safety Magazine reported that in a 2003 survey of 271 corrections employees in Saskatchewan, 25.8 per cent reported “symptom levels of PTSD suggesting a probably clinical diagnosis.”

Then there was the house committee testimony in 2016. MacDonald, the assistant deputy minister who quoted the 36 per cent figure, explained why that number was so high.

“(Correctional officers) face a unique situation given that not only is it their community that they go into that experiences trauma, institutions are like a community within a community, so they go back into the community within a community every day to re-experience those same traumas,” she said.

“It’s a really important issue for correctional officers.”

The meetings mentioned work already done in the military, and suggested the approach could be adapted to fit public safety employees such as correctional officers.

That work in the house has amounted to some progress.

On March 2 of this year, the federal government announced $300 million would be put towards the issue, with $20 million directed towards researching the issue and $10 million over five years, starting in 2018-19, for work to develop an internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy pilot to provide greater access to care.

The Herald submitted a list of questions to Public Safety Canada regarding what is offered and what is being done for federal corrections workers, including questions surrounding why federal employees with high rates of OSI in some fields are able to access services that federal employees in other fields are not.

A response from CSC and Public Safety Canada highlighted existing programs such as Critical Incident Stress Management and the Road to Mental Readiness, as well as employee assistance programs and other existing mental health supports.

A more detailed look at some of those supports is included in part two of this series.

The government also touted its incoming PTSD action plan, which is expected to come out in spring of 2019, as well as funding for research and implementation of more supports for public safety employees diagnosed with PTSD.

An explanation as to why corrections staff aren’t included in the existing OSI groups for miltiary and RCMP was not provided.

While the federal government develops its strategy, not-for-profit groups such as OSI-CAN work as hard as they can to fill in the gaps. If you talk to people who have struggled with an operational stress injury themselves, they’ll tell you how important that peer support can be.

Nicholas Hennick is a Moose Jaw-based advanced care paramedic and musician who works to raise awareness about the prevalence of OSI and donates proceeds from his music to OSI-CAN. Wednesday, he met with correctional officers from both provincial jails and the federal penitentiary. He has personally dealt with his own struggles, and travels the province, meeting with first responders to try to spark conversation and break down barriers for those who need help.

He spoke about the importance of seeing someone else in a similar situation who has battled through those same difficulties.

“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,” Hennick said.

“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.”

Hennick admitted that when he first started out on his tour, his focus was only on first responders. But as he journeyed out, he encountered more people in more situations who also went through the same thing he did.

Hearing from the correctional officers opened his eyes. He vowed that as he continued on his journey, he would advocate for them as well.

“Someone told me this morning,” he said, “they’re known as the forgotten.”

“The Forgotten” isn’t just what Hennick uses to describe people in other fields, such as correctional officers, battling with OSI. It’s the term used by correctional officers themselves.

John Lambiris is the vice-president of the union local at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. He’s grown increasingly frustrated as his letters to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale have gone unanswered.

“It is a rising issue. It’s something now that there is a big push for, as far as mental health and PTSD, and the type of work environment we work in every day,” Lambiris said.

“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.”

Lambiris said he would like to see greater acknowledgement for the work done by correctional officers as that of true first responders. If anything happens inside the prison walls, he said, it is the correctional officers and staff who turn into the firefighters, police officers and paramedics.

While Lambiris says he hasn’t heard back from Goodale’s office, he has gotten an audience with Prince Albert MP Randy Hoback.

Hoback stressed the importance of ensuring these federal employees are cared for.

“We’re finding out more information about PTSD and just how serious it is,” he said.

“If we don’t properly treat individuals impacted by it, we’re going to see more suicides, and more people refusing to talk about it, which creates drinking problems and other social issues.”

Hoback said the federal government has a responsibility to care for its employees who acquire OSI on the job. He vowed to follow up with the federal government when he returns to Ottawa next week.

For those on the frontlines, while they agree that the federal government owes its employees proper support, they also stress the importance of encouraging people who are struggling to come forward. They would like to see a broader, society-wide approach to recognizing the symptoms of mental distress before it can develop into a problem.

“We struggle, but we don’t want to say anything. We think we can still deal with it ourselves,” Hennick said.

“We need to open up an atmosphere where we’re OK coming out right away and saying, I’m struggling with this today, let’s deal with it right away. Because if you don’t, years later, it can haunt you.”

Mudjar agrees. While support systems are important, it’s also about opening up that conversation.

“I think there is an onus on employer, but as far as mental health, it’s a personal responsibility,” he said.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction where we’re reaching out and getting employers involved and trying to get staff aware of services in town. There was nothing before, other than going to see a psychologist. Employers are starting to catch up.”

What needs to change, Mudjar, Lambiris and Hennick said, is the idea that if you’re battling something, that you’re somehow weak.

“One of the biggest obstacles would be (the perception) of what you signed up for to do this job,” Lambiris said.

“The expectation is there that you knew what you were getting into, and this is it, suck it up, because you are a jail guard. You’re supposed to be rough and tough. Any emotions — you hide them. You don’t talk about those issues.”

Recognizing the signs, and breaking through that outer shell to get help, isn’t just a challenge for correctional officers.

“It can go to any profession, anywhere. It doesn’t have to be emergency services, it can be anything,” Hennick said.

“Catching it early is key, and being OK with coming out and saying, there’s no weakness here. People think you’re weak, if you have an addition you’re weak, and that’s not true. That’s not true at all. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to be struggling.

“You can get better.”

To learn more about OSI-CAN, including contact information, visit www.osi-can.ca.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, The Prince Albert Mobile Crisis line is available from 4 .m. to 8 a.m. Monday to Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. and 24 hours on weekends at 306-764-1011. The National suicide prevention hotline can be found at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and the crisis text line at 741-741. Province-wide professional health advice and mental health support is available at 811. If you believe someone to be in immediate danger, call 911 immediately.

This story was updated on November 28 to reflect a response from CSC and Public Safety Canada.