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Comes with the Territory

October 9th, 2009

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can be of great help to staff who struggle with substance abuse issues. In my counseling practice with Corrections Officers over the past nine years I have noted an additional area of need which crops us frequently with corrections personnel—that of posttraumatic stress. In fact, these two areas of substance abuse and psychological traumatization may well be interrelated. The “dual” (double) diagnosis literature indicates that oftentimes substances, such as alcohol, are the tool people abuse to “muffle” (self-medicate) their posttraumatic symptoms and make them more tolerable for a short while.1

Posttraumatic stress takes a heavy toll on body, soul, and spirit.1 In addition to substance abuse, untreated posttraumatic stress may contribute to high turnover, sick leave, and early disability retirement in corrections. And it may be at least partly responsible for the high suicide rates among Corrections Officers.2

Posttraumatic symptoms ruin one’s quality of life. Tension, fear, sadness, and hostility prevail. Sometimes the unsuspecting targets of staff’s posttraumatic turmoil are family members, friends or coworkers. Significant others may be the primary recipients of verbal or even physical aggression.

At the very least, unaddressed posttraumatic symptoms affect job performance negatively. Irritable and tense staff is more likely to react to inmates’ taxing behavior and get into arguments with them or even provoke fights for the adrenaline rush. Fearful Corrections Officers are likely to make deals with inmates for protection.

Why are Corrections Officers vulnerable to psychological traumatization? Like other law enforcement personnel—and, it can be argued, perhaps more than other law enforcement personnel3— Corrections Officers are exposed to potentially life-threatening and horrifying situations. Some of these events would be characterized as critical incidents and some not. (In the former case a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team may be sent to a facility. In the latter, potentially traumatic events are treated as part of the job. Corrections Officers tend to just dust themselves off and keep on going.)

In the course of their careers, Corrections Officers may be exposed to a variety of traumatic incidents: being assaulted; witnessing the gruesome injury or murder of inmates or fellow staff (“That could have been me!”); responding to an inmate riot; or being taken hostage, raped and tortured. Additionally, Corrections Officers may have to cut down inmates who have hanged or otherwise killed themselves. They may perform CPR on lifeless bodies. Staff that rush to a disturbance might come upon the horrific sight of an inmate stomped to death or disemboweled by other inmates. Or they may be part of the team overseeing an inmate’s execution.

Observations in war time have shown that even the “toughest of the tough” can be affected. Psychiatrists have come up with a plethora of names describing the outcome of exposure to horror, danger, helplessness, and death. Shell shock (World War I), war neurosis (World War II), post-traumatic stress disorder (Vietnam war), and combat stress reaction (1982 Israeli Lebanon war) are all labels coined to denote the symptoms observed.4

The corrections culture has typically tended to leave the issue of staff traumatization unaddressed. Being “tough” is a requirement for the job and a badge of honor for Corrections Officers. Those who have gone through life-threatening experiences or who have witnessed gore may be treated by colleagues with the unspoken expectation that they should remain unaffected by the ordeal. (”Oh, it was just an inmate!” “They had it coming!”)

Yet sometimes nothing could be farther from the truth. Corrections Officers do get affected. Traumatic events often have lasting biological, psychological, spiritual and social effects on them. Corrections staff are human beings who, like the rest of us, are influenced by the incidents to which they are exposed.

My ultimate goal in discussing this subject is to educate and empower traumatized Corrections Officers and their loved ones so they can reclaim their lives through effective support and treatment interventions.

1 van der Kolk, B.A. (1996). The Complexity of Adaptations to Trauma. In B.A. van der Kolk, A.C. McFarlane, & L. Weisaeth (Eds.), Traumatic Stress. New York: The Guilford Press.
2 Stack, S.J., & Tsoudis, O. (1997). Suicide risk among correctional officers: A logistical regression analysis. Archives of Suicide Research, 3(3), 183-186.
3 Finn, P., Talucci, V. & Wood, J. (2000). On-the-Job Stress in Policing—Reducing It, Preventing It. National Institute of Justice Journal, January 2000, p.24.
4 van der Kolk, B.A., Weisaeth, L., & van der Hart, O. (1996). History of Trauma in Psychiatry. In B.A. van der Kolk, A.C. McFarlane, & L. Weisaeth (Eds), Traumatic Stress. New York: The Guilford Press.

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