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Reaching out for inner peace
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 04/07/2008

Stress The concept of taking a personal or mental health day for some time off might make previous workforce generations raise an eyebrow or two. And for some jobs, the only reason for a day off should be a Wizard of Oz-style tornado landing on your doorstep.

At the same time, more and more signs point to stress as being the source of lowered job performance, staff conflict, high sick leave, and high turnover in a variety of fields. Stress is an especially bad seed for the correctional work environment, where depression and anxiety can be rampant among staff.

To address the growing strain stress is placing on the corrections world, Desert Waters Correctional Outreach is hosting its first ever conference, Reaching Behind the Walls: Mental Health and Workplace Wellness for Corrections Staff. The Colorado-based nonprofit’s mission is to increase the occupational, personal, and family well-being of corrections professionals. It’s hoping the conference will initiate open conversations about stress in facilities across the country.

“We want to direct attention to the fact that correctional work environments can be breeding grounds for psychological trauma and emotional disturbances to its staff,” says DWCO founder Caterina Spinaris-Tudor. “We want the conference to bring people together from across the country to discuss mental health issues and how the workplace affects wellness.”

The two-day conference will run May 8 to 9 at the Castle at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs, Colorado. DWCO is inviting corrections supervisors and managers, union officials, Employment Assistance Program (EAP) providers, and clinicians. The first day of the conference will be devoted to secondary traumatic stress and its sources, impact, prevention, and treatment.

“It’s a common problem in corrections,” Spinaris-Tudor explains. “It means you might not have been directly involved in an incident, but witnessing or even hearing about disturbing things can have a profound effect on one’s mental state.”

The second day of the conference will offer presentations devoted to both corrections staff and clinicians. For the corrections side, presenters will address how to identify signs of staff distress, how to supervise stressed staff, preventing staff suicide, and increasing wellness at work and home.

“It’s high time for corrections to say, ‘We are being impacted,” Spinaris-Tudor says. “If people want to lower staff sick leave rates, you need to look at staff wellness. We need to get rid of the stigma associated with coming forward and getting help from psychological professionals.”

Additional presentations will help clinicians and mental health providers in their counseling of corrections staff or their families. Clinicians will also get to attend the “Ask a CO” discussion panel so they can better understand the correctional environment.

“On the one hand, corrections staffs must be constantly vigilant, alert, and on their toes,” says Spinaris-Tudor. “In addition to this stress and anxiety, many are exposed to violence and even personal assaults at some point in their careers. It is a very complex working environment, and I think it will be very helpful for clinicians to better understand the CO perspective.”

Featured speakers at the conference include retired Lt. Gary Cornelius of Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, Virginia, who has written several books on correctional staff well-being, and retired Massachusetts CO Gary Ouillette, who runs a program helping law enforcement officers cope with stress.

“People are coming in from all over the country, and I think that’s really a good sign,” Spinaris-Tudor adds. “We hope this becomes an annual event, and I hope we give people something to bring back to their facility that will encourage distressed staff to stop pretending they’re OK.”

Related resources:

Get the conference brochure

Learn about DWCO’s Corrections Ventline

More on Lt. Cornelius’ books



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