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Hazmat Suit for the Soul — Part 2 of 3

October 6th, 2015

A prior version of this article was printed on Corrections.com January 03, 2011. It has been updated and reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis: Volume 12, Issue 10.

Continued from the September 2015 issue of the Correctional Oasis. A prior version of this article was printed in the Correctional Oasis, January 2010 issue.

The correctional workplace culture tends to reinforce the message that staff are “weak” if they are distressed by what they are exposed to on the job. So, the only viable option that remains for staff in that context is a machismo attitude that nothing “gets to them”—an attitude of “No worries, I’m good. I can handle it.” This attitude may work short-term to convey to offenders that the exposed staff are not cowering in fear. And it may be necessary “in the moment” so that staff can respond quickly and effectively. However, this type of denial also strips them of the freedom to admit to themselves and to others any longer-term emotional wounding, and that they may need help to get through an experience successfully. This mindset reinforces a “code of silence” of sorts, an implicit agreement to not acknowledge painful truths in order to not lose face or standing in the workplace community (or in order to not lose their job due to being declared unfit for duty).

Consequently, when misplaced pride and denial prevail, staff end up trying to cope with often toxic occupational stress without a psychological “hazmat suit.” And, for the same reasons, if/when such a suit were provided to them, they might leave it laying on the ground, unused. (And remember, the wounding referred to here may not just occur at the emotional level. If sufficiently severe and the outcome of many such exposures, wounding also happens neurologically through disrupted brain function or even altered brain structure.)

The prevalence of a “machismo” stance has been the norm in corrections seemingly forever. It is understandable if some people may want to keep it that way. Change requires grounds to believe that it will bring about true improvement. Change also requires courage, perseverance and ingenuity. It also takes the investment of time, energy and money. It is not a small undertaking. Yet, while waiting for change, real people are being negatively affected daily—poisoned in their souls—and in turn, they may affect others, both on and off the job.

A noteworthy and relevant discussion of these issues in law enforcement and military service includes the phenomenon of “negative resilience.” [1]

Resilience refers to the ability to cope with adversity and stressors effectively—whether short-term or long-term stressors. Resilience enables people to “bounce back” to a previous state of normal functioning after a stressful experience, or even to grow from it, functioning better in some areas than they did prior to their adverse exposure. At Desert Waters, we define resilience in relative terms, as a degree of immunity to health-degrading consequences of potentially traumatizing or other high-stress events (Denhof & Spinaris, 2015). [2]

Negative resilience, on the other hand, has been defined as the semblance, the appearance, of resilience after a traumatic exposure, when in fact those exposed are coping poorly. Negative resilience is fake, an imitation, not the real thing. It is a counterfeit hazmat suit. Negative resilience leads individuals, such as military personnel or police officers, to say that they have become used to traumatic events, that they are immune to their effects. In reality, however, with each exposure they are becoming increasingly more fragile psychologically and perhaps also in terms of their neurobiology—the capacity of soul and brain to endure stress. Think of it as a gradual erosion of resilience and psychological stamina, akin to a gradual failing of a vehicle’s brakes. Clinically, we know that professionals under such circumstances can develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), various types of depression, and substance use disorders, accompanied by the functioning impairments associated with these conditions—both on and off the job. They may also be suffering from brain matter changes. Most disturbingly, their risk of suicidal behaviors (thoughts, attempts, and death by suicide) may increase significantly over time. (Schoenbaum et al., 2014). [3]

Negative resilience has been attributed to “disenfranchised distress.” [1] By “disenfranchised” is meant distress that is marginalized, excluded. It is distress experienced by the individual, but not allowed to be expressed because it is denied, rejected, or ridiculed by fellow staff due to the unwritten “rules” of the organizational culture. [1]

Negative resilience helps public safety staff appear to be “keeping it together,” but in effect they are experi-encing psychological numbing and/or dissociation. [1] (Dissociation can be thought of as distortions in the awareness of time, thought, emotion and of one’s body in relation to traumatic events. [4]) This is usually accompanied by substance abuse or other addictive behaviors, which serve as means of temporarily blocking awareness of distressing emotions or thoughts. Addictive behaviors compound the negative impact of trauma on health and functioning, and increase the potential for additional highly stressful outcomes, such as relationship conflict or adverse legal consequences.

Due to the psychological defenses of numbing/dissociation, members of the military or law enforcement can appear unaffected for a time period following a traumatic incident. However, at some point they may no longer be able to keep the facade of “I’m just fine,” and they “crash.” This is called the “twin peaks effect,” [1] with the first peak in traumatic symptoms oc-curring soon after exposure to a traumatic stressor and subsiding quickly (“I’m over it”). The second peak can occur at a much later time. Research indicates that military personnel exposed to a traumatic event might “crash” about 60 days later, even though they have been conducting combat operations and functioning well during the past 60 days. [1]

For police officers one study showed that the negative resilience phase may be as long as 16 years. (This figure represents the average number of elapsed years from hiring onto the force to completed suicide of French police officers. [1]) The time between the two peaks is the time characterized by negative resilience: the public safety professional may look strong on the outside, but be gradually crumbling on the inside. If colleagues only go by the outward appearances, they are totally stunned when they find out that their fellow officer of soldier has, for example, died by suicide.

Corrections professionals, and especially corrections officers, deal with situations very much like those of other law enforcement officers, and at times even like those of military personnel in combat. Perhaps you also can think of corrections professionals who have exhibited negative resilience for quite a long time, appearing and acting as if they were doing “just fine”—until, seemingly suddenly, one day the bottom fell out, and they died by suicide.

So, the urgent question is, what needs to be done to ensure that corrections professionals, starting on their first day at the Training Academy, begin to be instructed as to how to knit an appropriate hazmat suit for them-selves? How are they to be taught to develop true resilience, and not to resort to a version of resilience that is only skin-deep?

To be continued in the November issue of the Correctional Oasis.

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