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How to mitigate the stress of working with sexual offenders

Working with sex offenders presents unique stressors for mental health workers


A job in any correctional facility is stressful, but working day-after-day to rehabilitate men who have been convicted of felonious sexual offenses can be extremely challenging on a person’s mental health.


By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety, American Military University

A job in any correctional facility is stressful, but working day-after-day to rehabilitate men who have been convicted of felonious sexual offenses can be extremely challenging on a person’s mental health.

“It was really difficult to go in and subject yourself to the psychology of these men and it was even harder to put your personal biases aside and work toward treating them,” said Kelli Callahan, who worked in a forensic mental health and treatment unit within a correctional facility in the state of Washington.

Callahan’s job included collaborating with mental health professionals to create treatment programs that taught sexual offender felons how to identify deviant thoughts, not act upon those thoughts, and instead learn new ways to express healthy and prosocial behaviors.

Ultimately, the goal of such rehabilitation programs is to teach sex offenders how to control their impulses and not to reoffend. Doing this work requires hours and hours of time spent in close proximity with individuals whose crimes and mental health characteristics were often intense, difficult to understand, and draining.

Callahan has been in law enforcement for more than 25 years, previously working in death investigations, crime scene investigations, as well as probation and parole. She currently is a full-time faculty member at American Military University, teaching criminal justice courses.

Her role working with sex offenders presented unique stressors compared to her previous experience in law enforcement. “It was daunting to work with men whose deviant sexual thoughts have been expressed as criminal sexual behaviors,” she said.

During her time working with sexual offenders, she saw a lot of her peers quit because of the high levels of stress. “Many people don’t like working with this population. There was a very high turnover rate in our unit and burnout was rampant,” she said.

Callahan knew it was important to focus on maintaining her own mental wellness to avoid the same fate. “I constantly made a concerted effort to remind myself that not all people are inherently bad or reflective of this population,” she said. It wasn’t always easy, but she knew she had to remain positive, focused on how her work was helping to keep the community safe. She also implemented several coping mechanisms to help with stress management.

Tips to Separate Personal from Professional

Callahan made a very conscious effort to disconnect herself from the job after hours. “It’s important to have clear dividing lines between work and home. Obviously, it’s easier said than done, but I make a point to do it,” she said.

For example, she works to find natural and healthy ways to relieve stress such as working out and practicing mindfulness.

Callahan also made a conscious effort to radically alter her physical environment upon leaving work. The physical design of a prison is intended to be confining – there is minimal natural light inside the building and limited access to open outdoor areas and fresh air. To counter this, she made a daily practice of walking her dogs in the evenings after work and spending as much time as possible outdoors.

She also prioritized sleep. “Working in an environment where you must exercise hyperawareness of your physical surroundings for 10-to-12 hours a day is physically and mentally draining. Because of this, I was really proactive about getting adequate sleep each night to help me recover,” she said.

Callahan also focused on maintaining professional detachment. “While I was at work, I was 100 percent focused and devoted to my responsibilities. Prison is a dangerous place to slip into complacency,” she said. “But when I left for the day, I made a concerted effort to mentally unplug from there and re-engage with my life outside the prison walls.”

Make Friends Outside of Law Enforcement

“When I graduated 25 years ago from the police academy, my sergeant’s parting words were to make sure I made friends outside of law enforcement. At the time, I remember thinking it was an odd thing to say, but now I remember it as an almost prophetic piece of advice,” she said. Initially, she didn’t heed his suggestion; most of her friends were fellow cops.

It took Callahan about seven years to realize how important it was to have friends who were not involved in law enforcement. “Making outside friends really helped keep me grounded and exposed me to a world beyond what I was so entrenched in,” she said.

Surround Yourself with Healthy Activities

In addition to surrounding herself by individuals outside the field, she also realized how important it was to engage in healthy and productive activities. She loves teaching, which provides her an outlet to pass along the practical knowledge and tips she’s learned over the years. In addition, she volunteers with several charity organizations that help promote positive, prosocial causes.

So far, these stress management strategies have worked well for Callahan, but she has seen many fellow officers suffer. She had a good friend complete suicide. “If you don’t learn to manage your stress, it’s going to manifest,” she said. “Venting about what happened on your shift is a healthy psychological activity. If you’re stuffing aside your issues and telling yourself that you’re okay, that’s when things start piling up psychologically.”

Don’t Try to be Tough All the Time

One of the unfortunate byproducts of working within the correctional industry is the inherent need to be viewed as strong and uncompromised. As such, it is not uncommon for correctional professionals to be unwilling to relay their job-related stressors, frustration, or sadness with fellow coworkers. This mentality is often reinforced by inmates and the societal perception of correctional professionals as tough, hard core, or even apathetic.

“As a long-time criminal justice professional, I too was once apprehensive to share my emotions with fellow coworkers or even friends or family,” said Callahan. “Over the years, I have come to appreciate and respect coworkers who are willing to come forward to express their emotions in order to successfully process them.” By doing so, these individuals are fostering a healthier work environment for everyone.

Consider Professional Counseling

While it’s important to have trusted coworkers, family members, and friends to help work through issues, officers who are under significant stress and are showing signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress often need to seek professional counseling. For those who need to take this next step, seek out therapists who specialize in working with public safety professionals and can provide customized care targeted at addressing unique stressors. While simply talking to a professional can ameliorate effects of stress, some officers may need to pursue more intense treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy and prolonged exposure therapy. Officers must realize there is no shame in being proactive when it comes to something as critical as one’s mental health.

About the Author: Leischen (Stelter) Kranick is the editor of In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She has spent six years writing articles on issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. To contact her, email more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

In Public Safety is an American Military University (AMU) sponsored blog that features analysis and commentary on issues relating to law enforcement, emergency management, fire services and national intelligence. This blog features in-depth discussions authored by leading experts with decades of experience in their field.