Parliament Hill staffer Paul Wernick says mental health services are not reaching the people who need them most and could have helped prevent his two recent suicide attempts.
Wernick, 26, who was hired in the office of Liberal MP Francis Drouin in 2015, told Global News on Monday that he has struggled with depression for years, but the punishing work schedule on the Hill exacerbated his mental health issues, finally leading to the attempts to take his own life.
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While both were serious enough to require hospitalization, the second attempt in May 2018 landed him in the hospital for two weeks. Wernick is now on a leave of absence, and is careful to note that he blames no particular person or party for what happened.
“The only people that really know what happens on the Hill in terms of the workflow are those who’ve been in it. It’s pretty relentless. You’ve got committee, riding commitments, stakeholder commitments, staff issues, letters, constituents.”
Wernick began putting in 60 or 70 hours a week, and said he took enormous pride in his work in spite of the unwritten rule that you stayed as late as your boss needed you to stay in the office. But there was “a hole inside” that he couldn’t seem to fill.
Alcohol flowed freely at after-hours receptions, although Wernick says he never drank. He’d hike on the weekends and prepare meals for himself — always alone. As a non-unionized staffer, he had a lingering sense that if he didn’t put in his best effort, he could easily be replaced.
“We bring in these people to talk to staff members to talk about microaggressions and the #MeToo movement, which is very, very important. But we need a 360-degree approach,” Wernick said.
“There’s just not leadership in terms of explaining to people how to manage what you’re going to be put through … I just kind of became a robot.”
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Wernick first told his story to The Hill Times, a widely-read Parliament Hill publication. In the hours after that article was published on Monday morning, he says 10 former staffers reached out to him thanking him for speaking out and saying they had experienced similar problems.
Wernick’s father, Michael Wernick, is the Clerk of the Privy Council and the top bureaucrat in Canada. Paul Wernick said his family has been supportive and was able to afford to get him the help he needs, but that he recognizes that not everyone has that option.
“It just makes me so angry that there’s people out there that are even more marginalized,” he said, tears in his eyes. “It’s a real crisis, with mental health and the suicide rate.”
What resources exist?
House of Commons spokesperson Heather Bradley explained that there are resources available to staffers who feel overwhelmed or who are facing other mental health issues.
“The House of Commons has a support framework in place for the well being of members and their staff,” Bradley wrote.
“This includes access to a comprehensive Employee and Family Assistance Program, two nurse counsellors and the finding solutions program.”
The first program provides “confidential and immediate support” to anyone on the Hill dealing with personal, work, health and well-being issues. It’s free, Bradley said, and can be accessed in person, by phone, by video or online.
The “finding solutions” program is also a confidential, and is designed to help resolve conflict. Information about those programs is made available on Parliament’s internal website and is provided to staff when they are hired, Bradley added.
But Wernick fears it’s unrealistic to think that in a situation where government departments work in silos and there isn’t much job security, people will actively go looking for help. Not many staffers would even request a day off to improve their mental health, he added.
A one-page letter included in the pay and benefits package or a one-stop-shop website that lists all available resources would perhaps help, he suggested, as would reaching out to each individual party and setting up a one-hour seminar for all MPs and staff to explain what’s on offer.
“When you come into an MP’s office, there’s a billion things to do. I know people that didn’t even enroll in the dental plan until six months in, because they’re overwhelmed.”
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Drouin, Wernick’s boss, said he would not be commenting out of respect for his employee’s privacy, but that Wernick has his full support. Wernick said MPs and staffers alike would also probably benefit from some basic tutorials in how to recognize the signs of burnout.
“We’ve got to work together,” he said. “We have to find a way so it’s socially acceptable and, from an employee perspective, OK to come forward and say, ‘things aren’t going well.'”
Wernick says telling his story has been “liberating,” in spite of how difficult talking about mental health issues can be.
“There are days where I still think about suicide … how easy or how nice it would be, but there’s just a stronger light, you know, and it’s being held by my family members and my friends.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) all offer ways for getting help if you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues.