Public servant's widow speaks out on mental illness

An Ottawa woman is speaking out about her husband's suicide, saying she wants people struggling with mental illness to seek help from family, friends or professionals.

Clarissa said her husband Eric — CBC and Radio-Canada have agreed not to use their last names — both worked in the federal public service.

Well before he took a job in the federal public service, Eric had obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder he had suffered from his entire adult life.

He had also battled depression.

Despite his mental illness, his wife described him as a star employee at the Department of Justice, where he worked as a lawyer, and said his performance reviews had been exemplary.

Clarissa was laid off from her job in April, and soon after, Eric received notice his department was cutting its staff of lawyers by two thirds, and that his job could be affected.

His wife said for Eric the threat of losing his job — or keeping it at the expense of a colleague — was deeply troubling, and his anxiety level rose.

"He'd been anxious for months, but in the last few weeks of his life, he was in this low-grade panic attack," said Clarissa.

"I guess in the end, the mental illness took over, and his whole world became wrapped up in what he did for a living," she said.

He took his own life on July 16.

"It's been terrible...it's been the worst time of my life," she said.

Since federal job cuts were first announced in the March budget, there has been a marked increase in calls to the government's Employee Assistance Program, according to Health Canada, which administers the program.

Health Canada said there was a 33 per cent jump in April over the previous year, and an 11 per cent overall increase in the months since.

Psychiatrists said seeking help is especially important if the employee suffers from a mental illness.

"The sort of things that are helpful are talking therapies, or medication," said Dr. Simon Hatcher at The Royal hospital in Ottawa.

"If people do feel depressed or see someone else depressed, have a conversation with either the health service or contact the primary care physician," said Hatcher.

Clarissa advised others to seek help if they are struggling.

"If you lose your job it's not the end of the world. Just rely on your friends and your family, and your support networks, and if you need help from a doctor or a psychiatrist, go get it," she said.

The Department of Justice issued a statement saying it sympathizes with Eric's family and that it provides all employees with assistance programs to help them and their families in difficult times.

While Clarissa is still dealing with the loss of her husband, she has since found a new job and said she wants others facing job insecurity to know they will bounce back too.

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