Hard Time: Correctional Officer Suicide Rate Rivals That Of Vietnam Vets

09/12/2017 11:41 am ET
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Far too often society focuses on the lives of those behind bars, and rarely on those who work inside correctional facilities. Prison is a tough place not only for inmates, but also for those who dedicate their lives to working in correctional facilities. Correctional officers (COs) and other corrections professionals face numerous health risks due to the high stress nature of their jobs and environments, risks than can impact their families as well.

The high stress working conditions in corrections can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among COs – at a rate much higher than for people in other careers. The rate of PTSD and suicide among correctional officers is often compared to that of combat military veterans. In a 2011 survey conducted by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, 14 percent of military veterans reported symptoms of PTSD, 34 percent of COs who responded to the survey said they experienced symptoms of PTSD. This stems from constantly interacting with inmates and frequent exposure to violence or the threat of it. COs often go undiagnosed because they fear the stigma of showing weakness by seeking help for physical and mental health issues.

How working in a prison affects COs

Simply walking into work presents inherent occupational stressors. Correctional facilities tend to be very stark and cutoff from sunlight. COs often compare starting their shift to entering a combat zone; making it quite common for them to shift into hyper-vigilance. With this state of hyper-arousal, the body is flooded with adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – a primary cause of chronic stress related health risks. Overcrowding in prisons compounds a CO’s stress. With the prison population rising by 500 percent from 1972 to 2012, it has made their work environment more challenging.

COs and other correctional workers are exposed to vicarious or secondary trauma by working with prisoners who are often highly traumatized themselves. On any given day, COs commonly hear about or witness stabbings and other violent incidents. Just hearing about such an incident, let alone having it happen to them, is traumatizing for the officers. This trauma exposure often remains with COs for the rest of their lives.

Conventional wisdom in corrections teaches officers to simply “deal” with these events. However, such traumatic incidents are all but impossible to forget about. Understandably, corrections professionals are often reluctant to share these events and stories with their spouses, family or friends.

Further adding to that emotional stress is the mandatory overtime many COs must work. Spending 40 hours a week in such an environment would be stressful enough, yet many officers end up spending 60 to 80 hours a week inside the walls.

The repercussions

Unfortunately, COs often rely on unhealthy or high-risk coping mechanisms like overeating and substance abuse. Many COs simply feel as if they cannot cope, and studies show the rate of suicide is very high. The 2009 New Jersey Police Task Force Study found the suicide rate among COs was twice as high as the rate for other law enforcement officers.

The solution

Part I: Mindfulness-based wellness & resiliency (MBWR) programs can teach officers not only to perform their jobs in healthier and more effective ways, but also how to enhance their overall quality of life through practical off-shift activities. COs learn self-regulation techniques like diaphragmatic breathing and other mind-body skills that put them more in-charge of their own physiology and emotional responses at work and at home. Overall, through learning mindfulness-based skills COs are able to work in such a way that they are less affected by and more easily recover from work stress and trauma exposure, while performing better at their jobs.

Part II: Trauma Informed Care is an approach to treatment involving understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of all types of trauma in an effort to facilitate healing. Realizing that correctional facilities are often caught in a vicious cycle of trauma exposure and re-traumatization impacting prisoners and correctional workers alike, corrections administrators are beginning to explore what it would take to establish trauma-informed care environments in their facilities. This would include training treatment staff and COs in trauma-informed practices for managing and supporting the rehabilitation of inmate populations and providing trauma-informed care for officers who find themselves struggling. COs do not want to be just another statistic; they want to actively better their lives at home and at work.

Both MBWR and Trauma Informed Care address the mental, behavioral, physical, social and spiritual dimensions of a person's being, while recognizing and honoring the unique needs and experiences of each individual. Trauma must be recognized in order to be properly addressed.

With Mindfulness-Based Wellness & Resiliency (MBWR) training and Trauma Informed Care, there is a more respectful approach to healing that deals with the cause, not just the consequence. It's not about what's wrong with you. It's about coping with what happened to you in ways that promote recovery, healing and resiliency.

Fleet Maull PhD is an author, organizational and corrections consultant, trainer and executive coach who facilitates deep transformation for individuals and organizations through mindfulness-based leadership training and Radical Responsibility consulting and coaching programs. Learn more at fleetmaull.com and mindfulcorrections.org.

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