Are you suffering from correctional fatigue? Here's how to beat it

Most correctional facilities fall short when it comes to our survival beyond the wall

By Bradford Simmons

What is correctional fatigue? It’s a condition that creeps up on many of us without realizing it is happening. This article covers hyper vigilance and its effects on first-line officers and supervisors. Before we do this, ask yourself a few questions, some of which come from Kevin Gilmartin’s book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families.

1. Do you have the same group of friends you did before you started the job?
2. Do you still do the things you used to enjoy before you started the job? Some examples of this are hunting, fishing, bicycling, working out, martial arts, gardening or anything that you used to enjoy.
3. Does your job of define you as a person?
4. Do you feel that you have become cynical? Do you believe everyone has an angle? Do you believe humans are fundamentally bad?

I am fairly confident that you have changed as a person between the time you started the academy and today. It happens to all of us and we don’t even realize it. Some of the changes are out of necessity.

As sworn peace officers, we aren’t able to hang around with people who aren’t doing the right thing – that could potentially put our careers in jeopardy. But I’m not talking about those folks. Look around at your current friends, are most of them corrections officers? In all likelihood, they are. As COs, we see things and have to do things that most people in today’s society could not imagine. From having to cut down and resuscitate the individual that just hung it up, to cell extractions, sitting on a drug eyeball watch or having to respond to the individual that just cut up and is bleeding out. So for these reasons and others, we like to surround ourselves with like-minded people who understand what we go through on a daily basis.

I was on the job for 24 years. I was honest with my wife about how my day went on very few occasions. Most of the time I would come home and simply say, “I did my eight and hit the gate.”  In retrospect, this really wasn’t the best approach. What many agencies across the country fail to do is teach us how to survive the job emotionally. Sure, they do a great job at showing us defensive tactics, CPR, firearms and educate us on subjects that are useful inside the wall, but most agencies fall short when it comes to our survival beyond the wall.

Survival beyond the wall
There are a few things you need to know moving forward:

1. You cannot let the job define you as a person because you cannot always control what happens at work.
2. If you are over-invested in your career and something happens that’s beyond your control and you have slowly stopped doing everything else that you enjoy in life, it can be difficult coping with a situation/discipline at work.

If you stopped doing the things you enjoyed, just start by doing one of them at first and slowly build up to more. Granted, when we started the job we were all much younger, some of us were still single and had no children. As time goes on we get married, we have kids, we coach Little League, we bring our kids to dance or karate classes, etc. But we still need to find time for ourselves and time with our spouses. I’m sure I don’t live in the only household that can’t decide what to do on a Friday night. You and your spouse go round and round until you finally decide, but generally by that time you’re already aggravated.

One way to fix this problem is simple: figure out how you’d like to spend time with your spouse several days prior to your night off. We need to spend time with our spouse and families, and we need to educate them about what we go through on the job. That can seem like a very difficult task because no one knows what we do quite like another corrections officer. However, if you value your family, like I know most of you do, these are the steps you need to take. They married you, not the job. Your family needs to understand what you go through at work and the reasons why you sometimes may not have the patience that you need to have. Your family won’t ever know what you go through unless you tell them.

Hypervigilant state of mind
I was fortunate a few years back to be able to teach a variation of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement for an entire in-service cycle. Dr. Gilmartin speaks about hypervigilance, which is living in an elevated state well above the average person.  We have to remain hypervigilant behind the wall as a CO because that’s what keeps us alive and allows us to get back to our families at the end of the day. We have to make split-second decisions based on the totality of circumstances. We generally don’t get to second guess ourselves.

Unfortunately for us, as Dr. Gilmartin explains, there is an equal and opposite reaction to being in this hypervigilant state for eight, 12 or 16 hours while on duty. We end up at the opposite end of the spectrum when coming home  - not wanting to do anything. Some COs stay at work and do double shifts to remain in this hypervigilant state because when they’re at work they feel alive, in control and productive, but when they come home they lose that state of mind and start to associate these lesser feelings with being at home. This is why it is important to maintain balance in your work life and your home life

In my career, I’ve seen a few COs take their own lives. Others turned to drugs, alcohol and divorce.

Teaching a variation of “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement” was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my years as a corrections officer. I opened up to the class and explained some of the things that I went through, which in the world of corrections is often times a difficult thing to do. I felt this was the best approach to reach every officer that I was teaching, to show them that, yes, I have experienced this and if you look objectively at yourselves, many of you are going to or have already experienced the very same things.

It’s time we open up to our brothers and sisters across the country, as well as our families. We owe it to ourselves and to them.

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