AP NEWS

Thanks to union effort, it’s easier for DOC staff to get help

May 14, 2019

If it weren’t for a relatively new program available to Connecticut’s correctional employees, Jim is certain he would be dead.

The military veteran and correction officer already had tried to take his life when Mike Vargo, executive board member of AFSCME Local 1565, visited him in the hospital.

Vargo told Jim about the LEADER program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. It provides specialized mental health and addiction services for police, active military members and other first responders.

Jim, who shared his story on the condition of anonymity, agreed to go almost instantly.

“If I didn’t go through those two weeks, I would have just been in the same routine,” Jim said from the AFSCME Council 4 headquarters in New Britain last week. “It’s great that they’re doing this.”

What’s now the Employee Assistance Unit began four years ago as an informal effort to help staff address substance abuse and mental health issues.

Like other places, the state Department of Correction has an employee assistance program. But Mike Tuthill, president of the union that represents correction officers, counselors and maintenance workers, said employees call a hotline, leave their contact information and wait for a counselor to reach out.

“But if they’re breaking down, you need to act immediately,” said Aaron Lichwalla, executive board member of the Cheshire Correctional Complex employee union. “Waiting till Monday morning, it doesn’t work.”

Vargo, Tuthill and Lichwalla — along with some members of the union that represents DOC supervisors — started by vetting facilities in New England and New York. They looked for successful, first-responder-centric programs that address both substance abuse and mental health.

“We’ve found that almost anyone can get sober for 28 days,” Lichwalla said. “But unless you treat the reason why they’re drinking … if that doesn’t happen, they’re right back at it in a short time.”

The union leaders so far have picked just more than 10 programs, all of which accept state employee insurance. They also have been spreading the word that employees who need help — or know someone who might — may reach out to them to start the process.

They said the response, especially to a program that hasn’t been officially advertised, has been amazing — even if it sometimes means driving members to Massachusetts in the middle of the night on their own dime.

“One of my most extreme examples was a member who went away to get treatment and, when he came back, told me he had an entire plan to commit suicide,” Lichwalla said. “He had a date, a method, everything. But because he went to treatment, he no longer has any of that.”

Most don’t seek help to avoid discipline

The union leaders estimate they have connected more than 100 people to treatment through the program. Those who have the freedom and time off to leave typically choose inpatient programs such as the one Jim attended. Others choose Aware Recovery Care, which sends a specially trained care team to a person’s home.

Although the unions worked with human resources and DOC leadership from the get-go, Vargo said the DOC seemed reluctant at first to endorse the program because “they thought it was a ploy to get staff out of discipline.”

When DOC leaders learned most employees using the program aren’t facing discipline, they began supporting the program more heartily, Vargo said.

In an email, DOC spokeswoman Karen Martucci credited the unions and human resources for creating the program.

“Simply enter the words ‘hazards of working in a prison’ into a Google search and you will see why this unit is so important,” she said. “The statistics related to life expectancy, divorce, substance abuse and suicide for correctional employees are staggering.”

A 2018 study out of Washington State University, for example, found prison employees are almost as likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder — and the woes it can cause — as veterans who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Martucci said the unit became official in August last year after an unspecified pilot period. She said the program received 608 inquiries from staff and referred about 40 people to inpatient or outpatient services from August through April.

That most who seek help aren’t facing discipline “tells us that they are getting the assistance they need before it impacts their everyday life,” she said.

Martucci said the DOC is hiring a clinical lead to oversee the unit’s operations. Vargo, Tuthill and Lichwalla said they’re thrilled about that, but plan to remain heavily involved.

The reason the program is working, they said, is because employees feel more comfortable seeking help from a familiar face.

“In my opinion, that’s bigger than me getting overtime or gas money,” Vargo said.

Jim hopes to give back

Jim said he hopes one day to be an official advocate for the still-growing Employee Assistance Unit.

His issues arose around 2006, when he returned from Iraq. He couldn’t control his temper and began drinking. He stopped working out and began picking at his face, an urge he later learned is a condition related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. He hated himself and withdrew from his friends.

Like many other correctional employees, he didn’t talk to his wife or anyone else about what he saw at work or how he was feeling.

“I was in a dark place,” Jim said. “I tried to take my life by taking a whole bottle of pills. I didn’t plan on waking up.”

He had no idea how much 14 days in Massachusetts would change him.

Jim spent eight hours each day taking courses or going to group sessions on how to regulate emotions and how to address PTSD and suicidal ideation. Then he returned home, where he and seven other first responders shared what they had learned.

He called the program “intense.”

Jim still talks to the other seven participants, with whom he became fast friends. He starts his day with 50 pushups and thinks before he reacts. He smiles when he looks in the mirror.

“If I can, I would like to help others in the department who are going through what I did,” he said. “I would be happy to do that. I would even go up (to Massachusetts) with them.

“I feel so much better about myself.”

l.boyle@theday.com