Pushed to the brink

Crown attorneys suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of repeated exposure to the worst crimes


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She was once in charge of many of Manitoba’s most important criminal files — tasked with bringing some of the worst child abusers, sexual predators, human traffickers and domestic offenders to justice. It was a job in which she took immense pride, one that made her a rising star within the prosecution branch.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/07/2017 (2078 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

She was once in charge of many of Manitoba’s most important criminal files — tasked with bringing some of the worst child abusers, sexual predators, human traffickers and domestic offenders to justice. It was a job in which she took immense pride, one that made her a rising star within the prosecution branch.

But all that work took an enormous toll, one she didn’t recognize at the time. She is a shell of her former self now, a mostly forgotten face in the Crown attorney’s office who often struggles to complete routine tasks.

Nicole Roch is in her third year of being on long-term disability as a result of severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Forget about when she might return to the career she began in 2000 and one at which she excelled, she is just trying to survive.

“The burden just kept getting heavier and heavier. It destroyed my resilience,” Roch told the Free Press in an exclusive interview.

She agreed to go public with her story, despite fearing how it might affect her recovery from a mental illness, which experts believe will influence about eight per cent of all Canadians during their lifetime. Those who have a regular front-row seat to trauma, such as a prosecutor, are at higher risk. 

Roch believes too many former colleagues have stayed silent about their own suffering, to the detriment of their personal and professional lives.

“I feel like I’m a bit of a cautionary tale, when you push yourself too far and try to persevere too much. That you can go so far into illness that the recovery becomes a nightmare in and of itself,” Roch said. “There’s no question many people in my office have PTSD. You’re interacting with people who are in so much pain and are so helpless. Over a period of time, it just becomes too much. We’re so reluctant to accept help in this profession. It’s so toxic.”

“There’s no question many people in my office have PTSD.” – Nicole Roch, Manitoba prosecutor suffering from PTSD

There has been much publicity in recent years surrounding PTSD as it relates to front-line workers, such as members of the military, police officers, firefighters, paramedics and nurses. Manitoba introduced legislative changes last year that make PTSD a presumptive diagnosis of a workplace injury for those in certain career paths who apply for Workers Compensation. Lawyers, including Crown attorneys, are not included at this time.

And that’s not right, according to a forensic psychiatrist who isn’t surprised to hear horror stories such as the one being shared by Roch.

“In order to be able to function in that world, you’ve got to be able to compartmentalize,” said Dr. Fred Shane, who has worked with survivors of concentration camps, people who attended residential schools, army veterans and mentally ill killers. 

“They hear some very toxic stories: violence, murder, the whole spectrum. Pedophilia, battered women, people who are mentally ill,” Shane said. 

There have been calls, not only in Manitoba but across Canada, to expand presumptive workplace legislation for other high-risk professions, which would include lawyers. To date, that has not occurred, but Roch hopes speaking out will raise awareness.

You don’t have to go far to hear stories within legal circles of lawyers using whatever means necessary to try and control the symptoms — alcohol, other intoxicants, infidelity. In Roch’s case, she ignored what she says were serious warning signs, pushing through in the summer and fall of 2014 with several major cases, including a major child abuse prosecution in a Manitoba Old Order Mennonite community and two inquests involving fire deaths of Indigenous children in Manitoba First Nation communities. 

She had 155 active files, and each one involved some type of violence.

Roch’s symptoms included hand tremors that she couldn’t control, major panic attacks and self-harm, which included creating sores and scabs on her arms and legs. There were also suicidal thoughts that often became overwhelming, although never to the point of acting on them.

“The pain is so excruciating that the possibility of it ending is so intoxicating,” she says. Roch began isolating herself from colleagues, including moving her office to a far-flung corner spot. She took a handful of sick days when the burden would become too much to handle. But she’d quickly dust herself off, get back up and go right back into the very atmosphere that was slowly destroying her.

“Something had changed in how my nervous system was functioning, how my brain was functioning and how I was managing it,” she says. “I chose just to set that aside. There were people I needed to talk to, people who needed me. It’s a big responsibility. People require a lot from you. I had really been downplaying my symptoms and lying to myself. I wasn’t going to let any damn PTSD keep me off work.”

Roch’s biggest concern was letting so many people down if she took time off to look after herself.

“I had this false sense of responsibility. I felt so much remorse and guilt and shame about having to walk away,” she says. “I was afraid of the consequences for my career of taking time off due to a mental illness. It was like getting punched in the face. I was down for the count. But I kept taking in more trauma the entire time.”

By the winter of 2014, she no longer had a choice. She had reached a critical breaking point.

There are approximately 150 workers in the public prosecutions unit. The province won’t say how many are in a similar situation as Roch. It won’t give specific numbers “as they are low, and we don’t want to risk having someone’s personal health information identified,” a justice spokeswoman said.

The Free Press has learned of at least three other Crown attorneys who are on long-term disability for what is believed to be PTSD. 

One of them has been off work for nearly eight years, a source said. There are others who have quit.

“I suffered for years without truly understanding what the problem was. I loved my job and I was very good at it. As the years passed, however, my work suffered. I had nightmares, extreme anxiety, depression and felt completely detached from life in general,” a former prosecutor told the Free Press. The ex-Crown applauded Roch for speaking publicly but asked to remain anonymous, saying “stigma still exists.” 

“Looking back, I can see that people just didn’t know how to deal with me and often said and did things that made the situation worse. Shame and fear prevented me from asking for the help I needed, and my life fell apart. No one should have to feel that way,” said the former prosecutor, who handled numerous high-profile cases, including ones that drew national interest, before going on long-term disability and eventually changing careers.

Shane said repeated exposure to “vicarious trauma,” such as what a Crown attorney may experience on a regular basis, can be as damaging as a first-hand experience. That’s something to which the ex-Crown can relate.

“There is little if anything that talks about the impact of repeated exposure — murders, mutilation, torture, child pornography and all the human suffering that goes along with them — among front-line workers such as Crown attorneys, social workers, victim services workers,” said the former prosecutor. “With these professions, you often hear about secondary trauma or vicarious trauma, which, I believe, is not as widely understood and certainly not seen as falling within the same category as full-blown PTSD.”

Roch said one of her major stressors was how much time she’d have to spend poring over a difficult file.

“A first responder sees the file once. I may look at that file 21 times. I may review the blood spatter evidence 50 times before I put that testimony before the court. I might look at the hammer-attack victim’s busted-up skull two times because you’re trying to pick out the pictures from the autopsy,” she said. “You’re continually going back to it, again and again, because it’s your responsibility.”

A justice spokeswoman said the province has taken steps to address these issues, but admits the work is ongoing.

“Manitoba Justice recognizes that working in prosecutions and in victim service can be very stressful for staff. They are exposed to very stressful situations and often work with the witnesses, victims and family members who have suffered from traumatic events that have brought them into contact with the justice system. It is certainly not easy work,” she said. 

“Staff are encouraged to address stress in a healthy manner and seek care whenever needed. The department employs in-house counsellors, who provide confidential services for staff in victim services and prosecutions.”

The Justice Department has a wellness committee that involves senior managers who are looking at ways to improve support. There were also a pair of recent mindfulness courses offered to employees over their lunch hours to deal with self-care both at work and at home. The topic is always a popular one at educational conferences and meetings.

The therapist brought in by the Justice Department was quickly flooded with work. Roch said she often made appointments to meet with her but the waiting list was lengthy.

“This person was completely overwhelmed with people wanting to see her,” Roch said.

The Law Society of Manitoba has help in place through the its health and wellness program, which offers free, confidential service for lawyers and students, along with their families, through Blue Cross health insurance, up to a maximum of 12 sessions per year. Kris Dangerfield, the law society’s CEO, said 95 members, or 4.3 per cent of all lawyers in Manitoba, used the service in 2016. The average number of sessions was four-and-a-half, she said.

“I can only imagine some of the difficult and troubling matters that Crowns are exposed to on a regular basis and the stress that such exposure can create,” Dangerfield said.

Roch took advantage of the law society’s counselling. She would like to see a peer network in place so others in similar situations can reach out for support. No such system exists, as those who are suffering from PTSD tend to do it quietly and privately. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has implemented a peer-support plan, and several employees with PTSD have told the Free Press their experience with it has been positive.

“There’s a lot of secrecy. There have been times when I’ve thought I just wish I could talk to other people in this situation,” said Roch. She believes there must be procedures put in place to deal with the heavy workload many lawyers carry. At her peak, she had more than 300 files on the go at a time.

“There needs to be some discussion at the institutional level as to how we assign this work,” she said.

The ex-Crown said there also needs to be more in-house education and training on recognizing and identifying symptoms.

“The stigma remains. I’ve seen it in people’s behaviour towards those who are struggling in many forms. Comments, facial expressions, tone of voice and the content/tone of letters and/or emails have shown this to be the case,” said the former prosecutor. “I know there are those in the workplace who have good intentions but who, I believe, do not truly understand the impact this type of work can have, particularly when it hasn’t had such a significant, negative impact on them.”

Roch doesn’t blame anyone but herself. She admits to being her own worst enemy, ignoring help that was readily available.

“I was pretty devious at the time. I had a feeling that if I admitted to anyone that I really wanted to kill myself that they might not let me work anymore,” she said. “I was not honest about what I was feeling. It was very important for me to maintain my reputation.”

She credits her immediate supervisor, Jennifer Mann, with helping to push her towards finally dealing with her situation. She said her husband and immediate family, including her five children, also played a major role. When she stepped away from work in December 2014, going on long-term disability, she expected to be back in a few months.

“Ultimately that wasn’t enough time,” Roch said. “Once I was out of the picture, I was absolutely off my rocker. I was absolutely shocked. I had no idea how sick I was. My husband was really scared. He actually thought I was gone. The first six months were really the darkest.”

Roch couldn’t get out of bed some days. She had to constantly have another adult in the house to make sure she wouldn’t harm herself. They explored going to a secure intensive treatment facility in Ontario that specializes in PTSD, but have held off for now. She take medication daily and continues to see her own psychiatrist weekly.

She said medical cannabis has helped greatly, although it means she can no longer drive. But a positive side-effect is she bikes regularly throughout the city, and the exercise has helped improve her state of mind. She also goes through regular chiropractic care, which has helped calm her nervous system, while taking a steady diet of vitamins and natural supplements.

Roch still needs sleeping pills at night to settle down.

“I remained in denial even as my psychiatrist and I discussed vicarious trauma.”

“I remember the first time I heard someone say to me ‘Oh, it must be hard for your kids to have a mom with a mental illness.’ And I remember just being repulsed at that statement because there’s so much judgment associated with that,” she said. “When I think about this in hindsight, I really feel like I was unprepared for this. I deliberately did not research PTSD as my symptoms began to mount. I remained in denial even as my psychiatrist and I discussed vicarious trauma. Even as my supervisor and co-workers asked me if I was really OK and if I could finish the cases I was working on.”

Roch thought she had turned a corner in January, telling her doctor she thought she might be able to return to work in six months. But weeks later, she suffered a setback after a registered letter arrived at her door from human resources. It was to notify her that funding of her home alarm system would be terminated, saving the government $240 a year, because she had been away from work so long. As part of routine security protocol, prosecutors are provided with a government-funded residential security system as a precaution.

“There was nothing personal about it. There was no acknowledgment I’d been off sick leave. It felt like I was under attack,” said Roch. Many of her symptoms, which had been muted for months, returned.

“They’re saving $240 a year by this, but if it set my recovery back six months, how much is it costing?” she said. “Just brutal timing.”

As of early July, Roch said she’s a “six or seven” on a scale of 10 — which is better than she’s been in a long time. She’s resumed doing things she couldn’t for a long time — baking for her family, knitting and even reading up on current case law.

“I can now organize my thoughts, get through a day without a meltdown,” she said. Roch still hopes she can one day return to her old career, but isn’t focusing on timelines.

“I have so many more things I want to do. I need to get better, to be myself again. Because who I was, was doing really well,” she said. 

“I just wish I had stopped working sooner. I should have known better, but I was willfully blind as to what I was doing. It’s actually OK to not be OK. You can’t forget it. You can’t unsee it. You can’t unhear it. You can’t unlive it. All you can do is build your resilience so that you can continue to move along.”


Twitter: @mikeoncrime

NEXT SATURDAY: Last summer, the Free Press introduced you to several front-line workers who were dealing with PTSD. Next Saturday, we re-visit them one year later to get an update on both their personal and professional lives and look at what has changed.

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.


Updated on Saturday, July 22, 2017 9:37 AM CDT: fixes typo

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