Funeral workers launch peer support group to help their mental health

Organizers of the peer-counselling group in Ottawa say they had a hard time finding help for their industry's mental health challenges, so they made their own service.

They say they're surrounded by trauma and it takes a toll

What may well be Canada's first peer-counselling group for workers in the death business is developing a strategy to introduce the idea in cities across the country. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Organizers of a peer-counselling group for funeral home workers in Ottawa say they had a hard time finding help for their industry's mental health challenges, so they made their own service.

"We're trying to create a network," said Melanie Giroux, an embalmer with Ottawa's Hulse, Playfair & McGarry funeral home and co-founder of Ottawa Funeral Peer Support.

"We want to be able to bring people into our group, to allow them to grow this in other parts of Canada, so we can help every funeral director in Canada. Everyone needs it." 

There is not a lot of research into the trauma experienced by people working in the death industry, but a peer counselling facilitator for the group said he's been struck with how similar their stories are to the experiences of paramedics and police officers

"It's a different level of trauma, but there's been no support," said Tom Kelly at a meeting on Tuesday night.

'Vicarious trauma'

Giroux said she's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"I think the injury is vicarious trauma," said Giroux of the day-to-day experiences of workers.

"We deal with the trauma other people are experiencing."

Melanie Giroux helped start Ottawa Funeral Peer Support. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Co-founder Michael Dixon was first diagnosed with depression and PTSD three years ago.

He is a supervisor for Ottawa Mortuary Services, which transports human remains —  often working with police and the coroner, sometimes attending horrific collisions and homicide scenes. 

Last month he went to the scene of the fatal bus collision at Westboro station

He said when he started sharing his experiences caused by on-the-job trauma, he began hearing from colleagues who wanted to share their own. 

During the same period, he said two colleagues killed themselves and others had left the business. 

Creating a service

When Dixon went looking for some kind of peer counselling, he said not only was there none in Ottawa — but he couldn't find any in Canada. 

That's when he and a handful of colleagues got together to design the group.

Now about a dozen members — mostly funeral directors and other employees in the death services industry — meet to share their experiences.

They talk about how they build support networks to talk about "a really terrible call" and if a colleague is in crisis, they can line up professional counselling.

They often see the same traumatic scenes as police or paramedics, but funeral home workers don't get the same kind of mental health support. 9:04

Dixon said the group has changed the way he monitors his staff and checks in after disturbing jobs. 

Giroux said the meetings help her understand the power of mutual support.

"I've learned I'm not alone," she said.

Giroux said the group has been approached by workers in other communities and some of its members are planning to travel to meet with them.