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Jurors sometimes suffer from PTSD after a trial. These two B.C. pilot projects aim to help

B.C. is testing two jury support programs: a peer support program and “mental health first aid” training for courthouse sheriffs.
Mark Farrant developed PTSD after serving as a jury member on a murder trial. He now advocates for mental health services for jurors. GALIT RODAN, THE CANADIAN PRESS

After Mark Farrant served as a juror in Ontario 10 years ago on a murder trial, it left him with emotions he couldn’t process and nowhere to turn.

Farrant said he was subjected to repeated gruesome details and the sight of burn scars on the accused, who was later convicted of starting a fire that killed his girlfriend. The experience caused Farrant stress at the time as well as after the trial.

“I thought this would calm down,” he said. “You bury yourself in work and busy yourself and hope it will go away. It’s the worst thing you can do.”

It wasn’t as widely known then that second-hand witnesses of trauma could suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, a series of symptoms that include intrusive thoughts of the trauma, avoidance of memories of it, negative mood changes, and explosive reactions similar to those experienced by soldiers, accident or assault survivors and first responders.

People would say, “You weren’t at the accident, you didn’t see anything, how could you have PTSD?” said Farrant, who founded the non-profit juror advocacy group called the Canadian Juries Commission and lives in Toronto.

“I started to communicate with first responders and vets, and they said, ‘You’ve got PTSD, my friend.’ But their experience was so vastly different than my experience.”

There is greater understanding now that jurors can suffer PTSD, too, and B.C. is at the forefront of offering mental health support for jurors and former jurors with two pilot projects.

The commission last year started a peer support system by and for former jurors. There are six peer supporters — two in B.C. and four in Ontario — who have received training, said Farrant. Those who have served on juries can find information about the peer support program on the commission website or from a brochure in their jury packages. They can book online, and all sessions happen over Zoom.

“There is no fee to access peer support — it’s free,” Farrant said. “There are also no time limits to access the program and no limits to the number of sessions available.”

“The power is you’re speaking to someone who gets it,” Farrant added.

Janika Ekdahl, who suffered PTSD after serving on a jury for an 18-month murder trial in B.C. in 2012, has taken the training developed by the commission, and now makes herself available to former jurors as a peer supporter.

“When I’m struggling, the best thing to do is to help someone else,” said Ekdahl.

The commission is also finalizing a “mental health first aid” training program for courthouse sheriffs who are responsible for escorting juries during a trial.

Sheriffs learn how to identify signs of distress in a juror. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, the sheriff might approach a juror with suggested self-care remedies, such as breathing or cognitive exercises, or consult with the judge.

The sheriffs are “required to follow a very specific set of instructions,” said Farrant.

Sheriffs are also given instructions to address a jury after a trial about self-care and resiliency.

“Our training (for sheriffs) involves balancing empathy and support with duty to the court,” he said.

The B.C. attorney-general ministry confirmed the province and the commission are in the final stages of developing the course.

Both the peer support and sheriff’s programs remain in the pilot project stage in B.C. and Farrant said there are other provinces looking to launch their own.

A 2016 federal framework on PTSD by the Public Health Agency of Canada listed occupations most prone to it. Under “other occupations,” it listed jurors among those who may experience “vicarious trauma” after sitting through trials for violent crimes.

In her 2021 PhD dissertation, Lisa Kyle, a University of Northern B.C. professor of social work, surveyed and interviewed 14 former Canadian jurors and found two to four of them had “probable PTSD” based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. She said there was little documented evidence about the Canadian jury experience.

Many of the study’s volunteer subjects, who weren’t named, displayed PTSD symptoms, including one who said she was reminded of gruesome details whenever she drove near the schoolyard crime scene, and thinks, “It will never go away.” That same juror said hearing details of a police undercover operation made her “almost paranoid” for a while, suspecting strangers were undercover police or members of a crime ring.

Another former juror moved out of the city to avoid memories of the case and in 10 years had not returned even though she had friends there. She also worried the accused’s friends were going to find her and kill her children.

Yet another former juror obsessively checked her door locks.

Kyle said in the paper she couldn’t conclude these symptoms were the result of having served on a jury, but it was reasonable for it to be considered a factor.

“This research represents one piece of the puzzle about what is hopefully a growing interest on the life-world of Canadian jurors,” she wrote.

Kyle said in a phone interview she’s glad to see pilot projects aimed at improving the mental health of jurors. She said attention should also be paid to jurors who don’t necessarily suffer from textbook PTSD but from “moral injury.” Listening to how someone abused a child, for instance, can change a juror’s “core beliefs of the world,” she said.

Unlike when he served on a jury 10 years ago, Farrant says there are now post-trial counselling sessions available, including at least four one-hour sessions offered to jurors in B.C. by the province outside of the peer-support program.

In 2014, “counselling was available, but it was at the judge’s discretion,” said Farrant, who sat in a four-month trial during which he witnessed the graphic deconstruction of the murder and the autopsy and listened to witness testimony which was “just as awful.”

Jurors like him were left to cope on their own or by sharing with other jurors after the verdict. They were forbidden to discuss anything said during deliberations with even a loved one or a therapist at risk of being fined and/or jailed. That changed, however, in January 2023, when a federal law was passed to allow jurors to discuss their cases more fully with therapists without legal repercussions.

Farrant’s doctor gave him a list of psychologists he had to interview to see if they would treat a former juror.

“I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? Why is this my responsibility?’ It continued to anger me,” said Farrant. “I made a decision to serve my country (on a jury) and then was thrown to the side.”

Farrant, who worked at the time in a middle-management job, “leading a middle-class life,” acted on his anger to found the Canadian Juries Commission.

Farrant said there is more to be done. He notes not all recommendations from a 2018 parliamentary committee examining ways to improve support for juries in Canada have been acted upon.

Canadian Sen. Lucie Moncion appeared in February before a Senate committee to support her sponsored Bill S-252, which proposes Jury Duty Appreciation Week every year in May to highlight the work jurors do and the mental health struggles they can face.

Moncion served as a juror three decades ago and couldn’t find help for her PTSD. She told the committee she trained to become a psychologist, even though she had no plans to practice, so she could treat herself.

How PTSD gets diagnosed

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnosis of PTSD requires that the trauma be experienced through:

• Direct personal exposure.

• Witnessing of trauma to others.

• Indirect exposure: learning traumatic event occurred to family member or close associate.

• Firsthand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of traumatic event.

Most people recover quickly, but some people experience symptoms that worsen and persist over months or years. Sometimes symptoms may not appear until months or years later. The biological, psychological, social and environmental reasons for why individuals can react differently to the same trauma isn’t known.

A diagnosis requires these symptoms be present for more than one month and cause significant distress or impairment in function:

• Recurring, involuntary, intrusive and distressing memories, nightmares and/or flashbacks.

• Avoidance or attempts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, feelings or reminders of event.

• Persistent negative emotions, diminished interest in activities, inability to experience positive emotions or feeling detached.

• Irritability, angry outbursts, reckless or self-destructive behaviour, hyper-vigilance, exaggerated startle response, trouble concentrating or disturbed sleep.

Source: Public Health Agency of Canada’s federal framework on PTSD