July 23, 2014 6:45 pm
Updated: July 23, 2014 6:52 pm

First responder says employer isn’t recognizing PTSD diagnosis


Watch above: Debby Primo was diagnosed with PTSD after her son committed suicide, but says her employer has resisted shifting her to less stressful duties. Sean Mallen reports 

TORONTO – Debby Primo says she was refused lower-stress duties at her job as a correctional officer after being diagnosed with PTSD.

Primo’s PTSD didn’t relate to her job, but came after her 19-year-old son hanged himself in her basement.

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“It’s every day he’s passed, every day is a day that he has passed,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “So every day I relive it and this is my burden, I expect people to understand to the point that when you suffer from this, it’s not something that your purposefully do.”

She started working as a correctional officer at the Toronto South Detention Centre in December, 1999. Nearly ten years later, her son killed himself.  She was at work at the time his body was found by her husband and two youngest sons.

Her youngest son stopped talking for a year and had to go to extensive speech therapy classes as a result.

She was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I cry a lot but I try not to cry when my children are around. I wait until everybody’s in bed,” she said. “The end of the day, I kind of like, I can just have my emotions then.”

READ MORE: Is there enough mental health support for first responders?

She was off work for nearly a year before returning on modified duties for almost two years before returning to regular duties under strict doctor’s orders in January, 2012.

She wasn’t supposed to be working in the “high-risk suicide watch” ward but was assigned that shift for a week in April, 2012. She was allowed to move to a different shift on the Monday of that week, but was denied Tuesday and Thursday.

About three hours into her shift on the Thursday she came across an inmate who had hanged himself with a bed sheet.

READ MORE: 15 first responders have killed themselves since May

She says, since then, she’s constantly battled to get her employer to recognize her PTSD as well as her doctor and WSIB-mandated modified duties.

Yasir Naqvi, the minister responsible for correctional services, wouldn’t speak to the specifics of Primo’s case but insisted in an interview Tuesday the government has “programs in place to assist our officers if they are part of an incident that could cause a post-traumatic stress disorder type of situation.”

In a written statement, the ministry insisted there are programs in place to help employees with PTSD:

“The Critical Incident Stress Management program is offered to all correctional officers involved in a critical incident immediately after it occurs. In addition, all of our staff have access to Employee Assistance Programs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” the statement read. “The Ministry does have policies in place for correctional officers who have incurred a workplace injury, including PTSD. These issues are addressed on a case-by-case basis and arrangements can be made for modified work duties while complying with WSIB requirements.”

PTSD among Canada’s community of first responders has been under the microscope lately,  after reports that 15 had killed themselves since May.

Primo’s union, OPSEU, says they have been lobbying for better support for correctional officers with PTSD since 2006.

READ MORE: How to get help if you or someone you know has PTSD

Dan Sidsworth, the chair of the corrections officers section of OPSEU, said the union has created “joint accommodation committees,” which include representatives of both management and the union.

The committees try and work out arrangements for members with PTSD to get them back to work quicker and in lower stress situations.

The committees have been rolled out in five jails but not the Toronto South Detention Centre.

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