|He’s Not Heavy He’s My Brother|
|By Caterina Spinaris|
In line with their brothers and sisters in law enforcement, correctional workers have a high suicide rate. A large U.S. study determined that correctional officers have a 39% higher risk of suicide than other professionals.¹
Why is this so, and what could be done to lower these numbers?
People consider killing themselves when they do not think they have other ways out of situations which, at the time, feel unbearable to them. Most people who entertain thoughts of suicide do not really want to die. What they want is for the pain, the bad situation, the anguish to stop. In their distress they are incapable of exploring viable alternatives on their own. They are unable to come up with ways other than suicide to find relief. To them, exiting life and their predicament is their only acceptable option.
Several factors may render people at risk for suicide. Some of these are the experience of grave loss; illnesses such as major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia; past suicide attempts; and a family history of depression and/or suicide.
In what ways might stressors in the corrections workplace contribute to suicidal thoughts or behaviors of corrections staff?
For a variety of reasons the corrections workplace can promote negative emotions and thoughts. Corrections staff serve in what a corrections officer has cynically described as “hate factories.” Some offenders simply hate corrections workers and would like nothing better than to see them upset, compromised, hurt or killed. Managing people who hate you is emotionally and spiritually draining. It is also highly taxing to be looking over your shoulder continuously while you work—aware that anything can happen at any time—yet acting like nothing offenders do “gets to you,” that you’re not bothered or scared.
In that pressure-cooker environment, tension builds up and tempers may ignite among staff, adding to the overall negativity and stress. We are repeatedly told by staff that most of their stress comes from other staff, not offenders. It is doubly discouraging to be worried about other staff—trying to avoid being mistreated, bullied or retaliated against when you’re only trying to do your job.
The end result of extreme and routine stressors is that they cause the body to be flooded with various chemicals, with the ensuing poisoning of soul and spirit. Cynicism, disillusionment and hopelessness set in. Staff might come to believe that life—including their life—is cheap, that nobody cares, that nothing is worth living for.
Not surprisingly, people often take their irritability and emotional disconnection home. Relationships with loved ones take a beating. Anger, disrespect, aggression, substance abuse and isolation may become the norm. At times affairs with co-workers complicate the picture further. Due to their increasing mistrust of others, corrections workers tend to not have effective support systems. Their immediate family may be their only lifeline. As significant relationships crumble and custody battles rage, many corrections workers have no one in their corner to help them handle the devastation. Depression and despair come flooding in. Violence may erupt in the home and threaten their job security. Excessive use of alcohol combined with accessibility to firearms may lead to seductive thoughts of suicide or homicide-suicide as a “way out.”
In addition to family break-ups, other high-risk scenarios for corrections workers are based on shame and fear of negative consequences of their behavior. Staff arrested for driving under the influence, under investigation for alleged policy violations, or charged with crimes are at risk for suicide. Staff caught in the web of addiction, such as gambling, are also at risk when threatened with public humiliation or financial ruin. Those who have been diagnosed with serious illnesses, and those who experience other significant losses are also at risk. Corrections staff who are routinely exposed to threats, violence, injuries and death may develop psychiatric conditions. To us it’s just another thing, a corrections officer once said. But is it truly “just another thing?” Gruesome or anger-provoking memories may haunt staff for months or even years after such incidents.
Both our 2010 and 2011 studies indicate that corrections staff indeed suffer from high rates of psychological disturbances related to their exposure to workplace violence, such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, depression, associated functioning impairments, health problems and dissatisfaction with life. A study of members of the general public found that suicidal thinking was elevated after traumatic events. More than three times as many individuals with full PTSD reported current suicidal thinking than people who did not have PTSD symptoms. Suicide thoughts were increased even in those who met only partial PTSD criteria (that is, they had some, but not all symptoms required for a PTSD diagnosis).²
What can be done to help corrections workers get through personal crises safely?
First comes awareness. Then caring. Then expressing one’s caring through questions, suggestions, and actions. These may include proposing or initiating potentially life-saving interventions, such as seeking immediate professional help through having a person taken to the ER or through meeting with a mental health professional.
Staff, family members and friends need to be on the lookout for signs of suicidal thinking and severe depression in corrections workers faced with grave losses and serious stressors in their professional or personal lives.
Some signs of depression are tearfulness and crying, insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much), difficulty concentrating or remembering, excessive fatigue, loss of appetite or overeating, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, self-hate and self-blame, irritability, withdrawal, and loss of interest in people and activities one used to enjoy.
Most people who are considering suicide communicate their intent, usually indirectly. They may drop hints by making statements such as, “Soon I won’t have to deal with that anymore”, or “You won’t have to put up with me much longer”, or, “I found the final solution.” Questions, uncharacteristic for the person, about life after death, or about the eternal consequences of suicide, should raise huge red flags. “Wrap-up” statements by a person in cri-sis, such as “I want you to know you’ve been a great friend,” could also be veiled goodbyes and communications of suicidal intent.
Communication of suicidal intent may also be through actions. Giving away prized possessions, setting one’s af-fairs in order, making a will out of the blue, or getting a friend to promise to take in their beloved pet if something happened to them, are examples of “red flag” behaviors.
In those situations you need to “pop the question.” Do not be afraid to ask a person about possible suicidal thinking gently, yet directly. Asking someone if they are suicidal may bring up painful and intense feelings in both you and them, but the question itself does not make them suicidal. Instead, questioning shows your concern, and that you are comfortable addressing a subject which most people would avoid. It also tells the other person that you are not judging them, and that you can imagine they are in a lot of pain.
For example, picking up on a hint you may say, “You said that this is too much to take. Has it gotten bad enough that you’re thinking of suicide?” If the person says “Yes,” do not show alarm and scare them off. People may have thoughts of suicide at difficult periods of their lives. So go on and ask, “Do you really want to die or do you want the pain to go away?” If they say that they want the pain to go away, steer them toward getting help (more on that later in the article) so they can begin sorting through their situation.
If they indicate they really do want to die, that they do not think anything can make their life better, the situation is extremely serious and requires immediate action. Ask, “Have you thought of a way to kill yourself?” If they reply in the affirmative, ask what their contemplated method of suicide is. Then ask, “Do you have what it’d take to carry this out?” If the reply is “Yes,” follow that question with, “Do you intend to kill yourself at this time?” You can also ask, “Have you picked a time and a place, when and where to commit suicide?”
The more “Yes” replies to the above questions, the higher the risk for suicide. Do not get angry at the person. That would just make him/her regret having been honest with you. Let them know you cannot even begin to imagine the pain that they must be in.
Do not leave suicidal people alone under any circumstances. If a person seems to be in imminent danger of self-harm, call 911 so they can be driven to the ER securely and be assessed there by a clinician. If at work, talk to their supervisor. Choose life. Don’t keep secrets. It’s better for a co-worker or loved one to be alive and mad at you than dead.
If a person seems blue and has had thoughts of suicide but does not seem to be in imminent danger, contact their family members, and/or medical or mental health providers, if you know who they are, and/or their supervisors. Have someone stay with them 24/7 until they begin to receive help and the emotional crisis blows over. Steer them away from alcohol. Do calming things with them, such as going fishing together.
Corrections workers are notorious for believing that they should be able to handle everything by themselves. Do whatever it takes to talk them into seeing a mental health clinician or physician, and spiritual adviser if faith is part of their life. Persist in your suggestions that they seek help. Assist them in finding professional help and in setting up an appointment. Go with them to their first session (or subsequent ones, also), if necessary.
Lastly, department policies must openly mention the stresses and strains of the job, and offer a variety of re-sources, such as coping skills trainings and in-services, abundant EAP and peer support services, and affordable mental health treatment.
Public acknowledgment of the emotional fallout of corrections work, coupled with acceptance of the fact that it’s OK for tough corrections workers to seek help, can go a long way toward preventing the tragic loss of life through staff suicide.
Corrections.com author, Caterina Spinaris Tudor, is the Executive Director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO, www.desertwaters.com) and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She works with correctional employees and their families, addressing the unique demands of the correctional workplace and its toll on staff and families. The mission of DWCO is to increase the occupational, personal, and family well-being of staff of all disciplines within the corrections profession.
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