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Invisible shackles: Addressing the mental wellness crisis among correctional officers

Why fostering mental wellness in correctional officers is paramount for a safer society

Men's Central Jail

Unlike many professions, COs experience traumatic events in the line of duty nearly daily.

Al Seib

By George Vergolias, PsyD, CTM

Corrections officers are the lifeblood of our American jail and prison systems. Unfortunately, for many COs, mental wellness has hit a breaking point.

For example, in 2016, Massachusetts Department of Corrections data identified a higher-than-usual trend in suicide among staff. In the previous five years, 20 COs had died by suicide.

When seeking answers from local sociologists, the department realized that the corrections system largely focused on data and statistics related to incarcerated people. Therefore, CO mental wellbeing and officers’ personal experiences were being overlooked.

Unlike many professions, COs experience traumatic events in the line of duty nearly daily. COs face threats of injury, repeat exposure to crisis situations, demanding schedules and harsh physical settings like limited sunlight and air conditioning. With these factors in mind, it is no surprise that COs confront depression and PTSD at higher rates than the general population.

Research conducted by One Voice United found that 31% of COs experience depression, compared to 9.1% of the general population, and 34% of COs experience post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to just 3.5% of the general population.

Repeat trauma in the workplace contributes to various negative outcomes, such as decreased mental wellness that can lead to increased burnout and turnover, and a reduced ability to perform everyday duties. In some state prisons across the U.S., the National Institute of Justice found that annual CO turnover is as high as 55%.

When mental wellness is overlooked, mental wellness issues can lead to diminished role performance, difficulty managing emotions, absenteeism, and increased risk to COs and incarcerated people. With the critical role COs play in society, it’s time to improve the tools leaders and COs need to address this mental wellness crisis.

Recognizing barriers to mental wellness support

It’s important to consider barriers that prevent more positive mental wellness outcomes for COs. Across industries, asking for help or acknowledging that an individual needs help can be a primary barrier to getting help. It is difficult to ask for help for many employees; however, it is particularly difficult in the corrections culture.

COs commonly use the phrase “eight and the gate” meaning endure your eight-hour shift and leave stress behind at the gate on your way out. This mindset is problematic because it builds an unspoken understanding that COs are not meant to carry the weight of work at home. Yet, they face a barrage of traumatic events on the job that are not easy to simply leave behind. For example, studies show that nearly 45% of corrections officers reported that they have witnessed or experienced a colleague’s suicide in a typical year.

When we think of COs a few words come to mind: tough, resilient, strong and firm. Often, COs are selected for their roles based on a perceived toughness, as they are required to manage and maintain order in our corrections facilities. This culture of perceived strength and resilience makes it difficult for COs to let their guard down and share their challenges with colleagues, family, and friends.

This stigma can create fear or hesitancy to seek help. If they believe that they will be seen as weak or emotional if others discover that they have asked for help, they may also fear that others will question their authority.

This fear can include judgment from those around them in the workplace and feeling “less than” for asking for help. Therefore, this stigma and fear impact a CO’s ability to feel safe and comfortable seeking support for mental wellness.

Finally, corrections leadership teams may not be aware that their COs need support. This is another barrier, as leadership teams may lack an understanding of the depth and breadth of challenges COs face, paired with limited budgets, and/or skepticism about mental wellness counseling efficacy.

Put together, the barriers that both leaders and COs face can create significant limitations that impact the ability to deliver and receive mental wellness support.

Choosing the right resource as a leadership team

One of the most effective tools to support CO mental wellness is personalized counseling, designed for individuals in high-stress, high-trauma environments. Leadership teams should consider offering proactive counseling resources and tools to shift the mental wellness conversation and deliver support designed for the pressure COs face every day.

Here are three steps leaders can take to identify where mental wellness support fits within the organization and how to deploy the best support possible:

1. Review current resources and gaps in employee support

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are built for all employees and offer both short-term assistance and beneficial resources for COs with intermittent support needs. Alongside your EAP, correctional facilities also need services that are carefully and thoughtfully designed to meet CO needs, including immediate and ongoing support and counselors who understand their challenges and stressors. CO mental wellness counseling should serve as an addition to EAP services to elevate support offerings and break down barriers to receiving help.

2. Select mental wellness support that works with your EAP

When considering a mental wellness partner to support your current EAP, choose a partner that is well-rounded. This means counselors must be available when COs need them, offering confidential and convenient support that works within COs’ demanding schedules. A strong partner should also understand your corrections team’s unique needs and barriers and collaborate seamlessly with your internal HR and leadership teams to ensure efficacy and success each step of the way.

3. Measure program efficacy and return on investment

When selecting a partner, it’s important to consider one that uses a vetted, third-party provider to anonymously survey participating COs about their counseling experience. Data allows you to understand functional improvements (measured using industry-standard metrics and tools) and aggregated, anonymized data can allow leaders to gain insights into CO mental wellness trends and ongoing challenges and to inform programmatic improvements.

Choosing and investing in the right resources is a critical step to shifting the tide toward acceptance of CO mental wellness support. Yet, for any program to be effective, COs need to take advantage of the tools and services. Leaders must learn to support them in doing so and remove the barriers. Sustainable change and growth start at the top, in two important ways:

1. Build a mental wellness forward culture

Culture change begins with leaders. Work toward creating a safe place for COs to share their experience and feel safe asking for help. Leadership should promote an ongoing communications cadence, from company meetings to internal communications, that helps COs understand the resources available to them and encourage the utilization of those resources. When we talk about normalizing seeking help, it can create a halo effect to reach other employees. Building a new culture doesn’t happen overnight, but creating a stronger culture with a focus on wellbeing will help COs overcome barriers and seek the support they desperately need.

2. Open the door to confidential support resources: Leverage a partner with proven, evidence-based services, deep expertise, and a network of clinicians trained and well-versed in CO challenges. Then be sure to promote their existence. It’s important to select the right partner and ensure COs feel safe and supported, so they can leverage the tools and services knowing the services are judgment- and stigma-free.

Changing the mental wellness conversation

Corrections culture needs to change not only to create a more sustainable system but to support and improve overall CO mental wellbeing. When offered accessible mental wellness support, COs gain the behavioral tools they need to better manage through personal and organizational disruption and process high levels of ongoing work-related stress. They can leverage new, effective skills to cope with trauma in healthy ways that combat the “eight and the gate” mentality and eliminate shutting down or compartmentalizing their emotions.

With the right provider, leaders and corrections teams can feel confident that they have the support of a partner who is clinically trained to work with individuals like COs. They’ll have a resource who will privately and confidentially discuss and address complex issues such as substance abuse, burnout, depression, self-harm, violence and anxiety, without stigma or repercussions.

It’s time to shift the conversation, culture, and approach to mental wellness support in corrections not only to ignite change but to save and improve lives.

About the author

George L. Vergolias, PsyD, CTM, is the chief clinical officer at R3 Continuum. George oversees and leads R3 Continuum’s Clinical Risk, Threat of Violence and Workplace Violence programs and has directly assessed or managed more than 1,000 cases related to threat of violence or self-harm, sexual assault, stalking and communicated threats. He brings over 20 years of experience as a forensic psychologist and certified threat manager to bear to help leaders, organizations, employees and communities heal and thrive before, during and after disruption.