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Home > PTSD > Reducing Staff’s Cumulative Traumatic Impairment

Reducing Staff’s Cumulative Traumatic Impairment

November 23rd, 2010

Given the corrections culture of machismo and bravery, what do you think the response of a staff member would be if you asked them how they are doing being exposed to a critical incident at work?

My 10-year experience of working with correctional workers suggests that the vast majority of the time staff would reply, “I’m fine.” When they say that, they may indeed be fine, but they may also be numb or withholding truth because they do not want to appear weak. They may believe that they are handling things well because they responded to the incident according to policy, and may have even saved lives. However, performance and well-being are two different things. It is my opinion that no matter how well they say (or even believe) that they are doing, they can probably use some “housecleaning,” some de-arousal and reprogramming, after exposure to violence. Incidents that provoke fear, horror or a sense of helplessness affect our brains and our beliefs. They can  cause changes and injuries invisible to the naked eye, but very real nonetheless.

If left unprocessed, the impact of such experiences tends to accumulate over the course of a correctional worker’s career. As a result, the souls and bodies of correctional workers become increasingly fragile. The last few years I have come across several cases involving veteran staff who had exemplary work records yet they suddenly collapsed psychologically even after routine critical incidents, examples of the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

What might be the answer? We are complex creatures and we are not all affected by critical incidents in the same way. Temperament, history and organizational culture shape how correctional workers will be impacted by such events. However, processing the impact on their bodies, emotions and core beliefs fairly soon after the incident can help a person neutralize the negative, keep the good and even grow positively from the experience. The idea is to intervene while the cement is still wet. Repairs are easier before it hardens. Or to use another analogy, it is easier to pull up a sapling by the roots than to try to uproot a mature tree. Reprogramming our mind days or even weeks after a critical incident happened will be easier to accomplish than doing so months or years later, when secondary fear conditioned responses have had the chance to be established.

One way to do that relatively quickly is through the use of a technique called EMDR. There are other also approaches to deal with the effects of critical events. However, I have found EMDR to be very effective, especially in the case of isolated incidents. Usually two or three 90-minute sessions are sufficient to deal with an event’s fallout. For more information about  the effectiveness EMDR in treating psychological trauma, go to or

My suggestion is that administrators consult with the psychologists on staff and EAP providers about this issue. If they decide that indeed it has merit, I urge them to explore ways to ensure that all staff involved in critical (violent, life-threatening) incidents receive resources about where to find psychotherapists who use EMDR, and reasons why they should pursue the processing of the incident in that manner. EAP and other mental health providers should be selected who are trained in EMDR, prolonged exposure and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, so that clients can be referred to them for such specialized preventative interventions.

The purpose for this is to help correctional workers prevent toxic traumatic material from accumulating in their souls and bodies and to even help them grow from their work experiences.

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  1. Rudeman
    May 19th, 2011 at 12:16 | #1

    I agree totally Caterina. Some years ago I witnessed an inmate commit suicide right in front of me, and at the time I didn’t think much of it until weeks later when I was told by those close to me that something had changed in me.
    I would snap at people close to me, had trouble sleeping, lost my appetite and was unaware that this was a direct result of the incident that happened weeks before.
    It was only through consulting my family physician and being referred to a psycholgist that I was able to deal with the reason why I was acting the way I was.
    Unfortunately I know a lot of officers who have gone through similar incidents who just fluff it off, and go on with their daily routine unaware of the potential time bomb they are holding inside them.


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