Editorial: Lessons in intervention

A proactive stance toward mental health can prevent tragedy.
Patrick Flannery
May 15, 2018
Some guy drove a van through a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto the other day, killing 10 and injuring another 15. I suppose it’s a sign of the times that it actually comes as a relief that there was apparently no terror motive. Early accounts suggest the driver was simply a socially maladjusted person, potentially with mental/emotional health issues and probably a death wish.
Of course, it hardly matters to the dead and injured why they are dead or injured, but the rest of us might even feel a bit more secure knowing this was a one-off case of a disturbed person on a rampage rather than part of some organized plot by evil ideologues.

But maybe we shouldn’t relax too much. I’ve often felt the world would be a better and safer place if people treated mental health more like we treat physical health. What would be the matter with a yearly visit to a psychologist’s office, the same way we go to the dentist, to have a quick chat about any issues we’re having? Maybe do a brief screening questionnaire? If this were common behaviour, I bet a lot of people like the Toronto killer would be identified and given help before something tragic happened. And heading off would-be killers would only be part of the benefit – imagine the suicides that would be prevented and the marriages saved. There was a time when people didn’t go to the dentist, either. Perhaps whatever program of public health education changed that could be repeated.

Absent this sort of grassroots social change, the workplace is often the only place that people with mental, emotional or addiction issues come into prolonged contact with others. Intervention from employers and co-workers could be the only chance for them to get help. I wouldn’t recommend installing a couch in your office for regular therapy sessions, but maybe there’s something we can do when we notice a co-worker struggling.

I called Jennifer Threndyle, a specialist with Workplace Safety and Prevention Services, to ask her what she recommends. She acknowledges that the initial conversation can be a tough one. There’s not much an employer can do except ask the employee privately if everything is OK and if they need any help. If the employee admits there’s a problem, there are few free services an employer can point them to. The Canadian Mental Health Association (cmha.ca) is one and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (camh.ca) is another. These organizations run crisis phone lines that anyone can call for immediate help from a professional. They will also both come out to workplaces to speak to employees about mental health and give good advice to both workers and managers.

Threndyle also recommends implementing an Employee Assistance Program as part of the benefit package you give your employee. We have one here at Annex and it’s a great resource. Any employee struggling with any aspect of their lives can call in complete confidence for free advice. Putting services like this in place sends a strong message to your workforce that they are more than interchangeable cogs in your money-making machine and are instead part of your workplace family, which is, I know, how most rental store owners feel about their employees.

It’s like anything else: a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Nothing can stop all tragedies, but they should direct our attention to what we can do to make them less common.

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