Ontario Shores: Pushing worker mental illness back into the closet

Recently the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) posted bus shelter ads that noted two of three individuals with mental illness suffer in silence.

The stigma of mental illness is often linked to various forms of discrimination, including barriers to housing and employment opportunities. It can also lead to social isolation.

Stigma can be a major barrier to treatment itself.

There are many stereotypes about mental illness – many which are simply not true.

We have previously noted that individuals with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else in society. Studies have shown that those suffering from mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence. In the wake of our last 2008 campaign around workplace safety at CAMH, we finished with a bus shelter ad erected in conjunction with the hospital’s patient council that said as much. Our position hasn’t changed.

We heard evidence of this earlier in the year when we conducted a meeting between the North West Local Health Integration Network and many of the front line mental health workers in Thunder Bay. Receiving care “in the community” often meant housing in neighborhoods most of us would be reluctant to visit, let alone choose to live in.  Workers expressed safety concerns about leaving patients in such neighborhoods with prescription pharmaceuticals that have substantial street value. The worry is these conditions are likely to make patients a target of crime.

With all this in mind, meeting Norma Gunn was a remarkable experience.

Norma is a nurse suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following an extended beating she endured at her workplace — Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences. It was the 16th such assault she had been at the receiving end of while working at the hospital and by far the worst. Her life is now one led in fear. She says when she comes to the main campus of the hospital her body shuts down and she becomes physically ill.

The good news is she is improving with professional care, but this is a long road. She tells us she couldn’t have shared her story a year ago, let alone repeat it for various media.

Many recent anti-stigma campaigns have involved individuals breaking their silence by talking about their illness.  Usually these are celebrities, such as actress Glenn Close. Close has accompanied members of her extended family as they speak about their own struggles with mental illness. In Canada Olympian Clara Hughes has been called a hero for coming forward and talking about her battle with depression as part of Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk About It” campaign.

When an Operation Maple video featuring Norma was released a few weeks ago, it generated many comments – most of them similarly applauding the nurses’ bravery in talking about her illness and the events that led up to it.

It’s hard not to watch the video without getting emotionally involved, especially when Norma talks about her children wanting their Mom back. Norma is not a stereotype. Neither is she a statistic. We have heard her story repeated numerous times and she is remarkably consistent and clear about what happened to her and the effects she has had to live with. Others have corroborated her story.

She is also willing to take a big chance that she will not suffer discrimination as a result of going public with her illness.

The problem is, she may already have:  her income has dropped considerably from before the incident, having lost shifts at premium pay, including overtime. She is presently on accommodation at a satellite location where she feels safer. Up until recently she was given meaningful work to do there. Now the hospital has taken it away, likely part of their plan to return her to the main campus where they know she cannot go without incredible physical and mental stress. That is partly because they have repeatedly failed Norma.

The Operation Maple video highlights some of Ontario Shores’ failures with Norma, including the remarkable decision to simply let her drive herself home following the beating. It doesn’t note they failed to tell her the patient who beat her had returned to the hospital after having been transferred to another facility following the incident. She found out walking through the parking lot from a maintenance worker. They also told her that they would find a way to keep her from encountering the patient in the workplace. They failed at that too.

Ontario Shores thought so highly of Norma in 2010 that they gave her a GEM award. Two years later the situation looks very different following her mental and physical injuries. Is it their own attitudes towards mental health that prevents Ontario Shores from recognizing Norma’s value today?

While Norma’s video does much to overcome the stigma of mental illness, that’s not the reason she tells her story.

Ontario Shores has a big problem with workplace safety, including assaults on staff. That’s the elephant in the room that the hospital would rather not have her or us talk about. In May, June and July the centre had an average of one reported assault per day. In 2008 when we were expressing similar concerns about workplace safety at CAMH, it was a month with 23 reported assaults that became the tipping point for staff.  CAMH is three times the size of Ontario Shores. Simply put – we’ve never seen anything like this before.

We have consistently laid this problem at the feet of the employer, not those in their care. While the mentally ill are no more likely to be violent than any other member in society, it doesn’t mean there aren’t those in our care who pose a risk to themselves and others. These are often factors that brought them to the hospital in the first place.

Solving Ontario Shores’ problem is not going to be easy – likely there are a variety of answers, including looking at the root environmental causes at the hospital that have spiked such aggressive behavior. Reducing such violence has been successfully done elsewhere, suggesting this is very much in the hands of the  hospital.

The Ministry of Labour is conducting its own major investigation and issuing orders.

This will be a big help, but clearly there has to be more, including buy-in from the hospital’s leadership.

Ontario Shores has suggested that by telling Norma’s story we are stigmatizing the mentally ill, yet Norma’s experience suggests the opposite is true.  Ontario Shores’ accusations also undermine a serious anti-stigma campaign intended to break such silence.

Bell Canada invited everyone to talk about it. There was no clause that mental health professionals experiencing their own mental illness need not be included.

In recent days we have had signals that maybe Ontario Shores is willing to address this issue with us. We can only hope.

7 responses to “Ontario Shores: Pushing worker mental illness back into the closet

  1. Katie FitzRandolph

    Very powerful

  2. Ontario Shores puts on a facade that they care about their workers but it’s obvious that the way Norma is being treated, they really don’t care. By taking away her meaningful work from the satellite site and wanting her to come back to the main campus where the patient that beat her up resides is very callous and cold hearted. They must be doing this as retribution to the video.
    I have a friend who works at Ontario Shores and he says that the morale throughout the whole hospital is terrible and that management promote an atmosphere of fear rather then collaboration with it’s staff to promote a safe work environment.
    I’m so glad that the ministry of labour is involved and doing an investigation of managements practices and the horrid way they treat their employees.
    My friend said that the hospital was much better place to work when it was under the Government years ago and it was safer as well.

  3. Something's Fishy

    Ontario Shores is the master of puppets (thank you Metallica). This organization will never correct their behaviour unless a regime change occurs from the top down. Management at OS is a farce; they have a “deer caught in head lights” buffoonery about them … and these are presumably educated people? Yeah right. I hope the Ministry of Labour keeps fining them … and I hope it makes front line news. This organization is run worse than a circus.

  4. This is a facility that promotes itself as a Mental Health Care Centre?
    They allow their workers to be beaten half to death and so traumatized that they themselves require mental health services and then OS has the audacity to try to intimidate these workers and their advocates into silence?
    This is outrageous and appalling.
    Margaret Trudeau was engaged by OS not long ago to de-stigmatize mental illness and to promote OS services. They ran a big publicity campaign. And who knows how much money they spent on this promotion.
    I wonder what Ms. Trudeau would think of her association with this place now?
    For such a peaceful location down on the shores of Lake Ontario it is frightening to hear the truth of what goes on down there.
    It sounds like they have it backwards and are more interested in making people sick than well.
    And never mind just the mental health services. I’ve seen the video.
    This woman was left to drive herself home after the beating? How could this be? OS can’t even offer competent medical support to their staff?
    This is really sick. I mean really sick.

  5. What a forthright and refreshing perspective on the shameful actions of the Ontario Shores Hospital and how very revealing of them to accuse Diablogue (by airing this story) of stigmatizing the mentally ill.
    Why has Ontario Shores not embraced this woman, afforded her the assistance and support she must sadly need otherwise it would never have been necessary for her story to become public?
    Ontario Shore’s reprehensible treatment of this traumatized worker spotlights their shameful and opportunistic manipulation of the stigmatization of the mentally ill by attempting to use it to silence those brave people who are speaking out… to camouflage their own failures.
    I fear Ontario Shores has lost all credibilty and it would be in everyone’s best interest to clean house and start over again to try to restore this once respected Mental Health Centre.

  6. Well said Diablogue!
    How dare OS try to evade responsibility of their repeated failures by trying to curb this courageous woman from speaking out.
    It would seem that only celebrities are allowed to talk about mental health issues. How sad is that?

  7. Well we the injured workers cannot be silenced…we must stand strong and in doing so we can be proud that maybe our efforts has saved someone else from being injured or even killed….next time it could be staff, patients or even visitors.
    Ontario shores seems to be a pilot project right now but what administration does not understand is that this pilot project is a failure and they are too blind to admit and see it. Their ego’s have clouded the truth. In presenting Ontario Shores as a safe place to work is falsifying the truth. New workers coming into the facility are not told of the hazards or danger. The public are being presented with a false face of the facility. Does the Board of Directors know what is going on in the hospital???? Who made the decision that the Board Meetings are closed to the interested public?? Do they have something to hide?? As the public we must demand a change in this our tax dollars go to fund Ontario Shores and it is our right to attend the Board Meetings…..we must make a stand and question this….UNITED we STAND

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