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When ignorance is not bliss
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 10/27/2008

1027ball on stick Editor’s note: This story is being shared with us by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach. The non-profit organization and its newsletter, Correctional Oasis, are dedicated to the well being of correctional staff and their families.

Imagine this conversation.

Two correctional officers are chatting. One blurts out, “You wouldn’t believe what a wimp Pete turned out to be! He’s being treated for diabetes! I have no use for him anymore now that he’s on insulin!”

“I have no respect for him anymore either!” exclaims the other officer. “What a weakling! Why doesn’t he just get a grip? Dave is also a big loser. He was just diagnosed with skin cancer and high blood pressure. Can’t trust him with my back anymore!”

This exchange sounds totally ridiculous, doesn’t it? Now, replace the words “diabetes,” “skin cancer,” and “high blood pressure” with words such as “depression,” “panic attacks,” and “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Do the put-downs of correctional employees struggling with psychological conditions sound more justifiable than of those struggling with physical illnesses?

Sadly, if you believe so, you’re not alone. More times than I can count I have been told by corrections staff that to them admission of psychological turmoil equals weakness.

Repeatedly I have also heard staff share how ashamed they feel for not being able to “get over it,” not being “strong enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” when it comes to battling with the darkness of depression or the torment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Many have added that they would lose their coworkers’ respect and perhaps even jeopardize their chances for promotion if it became known that they were experiencing psychological difficulties. Consequently several corrections staff who need help decline recommendations to start psychotherapy or to be evaluated by their physicians for psychotropic medications.

Instead, some choose to self-medicate with alcohol or even illegal drugs, preferring to risk their health, career and family rather than to seek appropriate treatment. In some tragic cases the reluctance to seek pharmaceutical or psychological help has cost lives. Other staff keep existing in a “blue”zone, with diminished quality of life and chronic under- functioning.

The myth that a correctional worker who struggles emotionally is weak is a cruel and dangerous prejudice. It is especially destructive when we consider that many correctional workers serve in environments that are breeding grounds for psychological trauma and turmoil.

Catch 22! Your soul (and brain, as we’ll see later) are highly likely to get affected, but you’ve been indoctrinated to believe that you can’t admit to your predicament or seek help if you want to enjoy the respect of your peers.

This prejudice against psychological struggles is based on lack of understanding of what “mental” conditions are about. I hope that the more corrections staff comprehend about these conditions, the more they’ll seek appropriate treatment, just like they would had they been diagnosed with a tooth infection.

So here is a brief sampling of information about biological underpinnings of what we call “mental illnesses.” In reality, a more accurate term for these conditions might be psychobiological or brain disorders.

Research shows conclusively that “mental illnesses” are accompanied by biochemical and other brain anomalies, just like diabetes is caused by abnormal pancreatic functioning. Even if situational factors are involved, such as a chronically stressed person eventually becoming depressed, we now know that relentless stress changes brain chemistry, even causing brain shrinkage.

We have known for years that conditions such as depression have biological and genetic underpinnings. Now fascinating research using functional brain imaging shows differences between brain activity levels during periods of depression and in the absence of depression.

The depressed brain shows up on scans as dark blue and green, indicating low levels of cellular activity. The normal or recovered brain shows up as yellow and white, indicating much more brain activity.

There is also evidence that in depression there is a decrease in connections among brain cells, and a decrease in generation of new brain cells. Severe mood disorders are accompanied by shrinkage in brain areas involved in managing emotions or memories, such as the frontal lobes and the hippocampus.

PTSD leads to shrinkage of the hippocampus. Treatment with antidepressants resulted in re-growth of the hippocampus and improvement of PTSD symptoms.

Amazingly, brain imaging studies have also shown improvement in brain functioning following psychotherapy using cognitive-behavioral therapy for obsessive- compulsive disorder, and cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy for depression.

The irrefutable conclusion is that psychological disturbances co-exist with functional (software) and structural (hardware) brain anomalies. Healing involves addressing both the psychological and the physical aspects.

Treating coworkers who show psychological symptoms of, for example, depression as if they are weak is just as outrageous as showing contempt to a colleague with muscular sclerosis. Both conditions are tied into brain biology in ways we are still identifying.

Why then expect depressed or traumatized people to keep running on a brain “out of juice,” but not go get it jump-started through medications or psychotherapy?

It is important to also note that people can be in treatment for mild to moderate psychobiological disturbances yet remain effective on the job. They are in good company.

Sir Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln battled with severe depression and led countries successfully during times of war when neither had access to therapies for depression that are commonplace today.

Corrections folks are not made out of titanium. You are human, and therefore, just as susceptible to wear-and-tear of body, soul and spirit as the rest of us.

Besides, you work in a negative environment which can aggravate pre- existing tendencies toward psychobiological disorders, and which can take down even the toughest among you when exposed to enough cumulative trauma.

So instead of toughing it out, give yourself and your colleagues permission to explore the tools at your disposal for physical, psychological and spiritual healing. If you see coworkers struggling emotionally, encourage them to seek appropriate help.

Be compassionate and supportive. If you are dealing with psychological issues yourself, be smart and truly strong.

Seek the help of competent health care providers. Do that and enjoy better days ahead.

Related resources:

ABC News



Intracare Hospital

NY Times


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