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What About a Strengths-based Approach?
By Caterina Spinaris , with Mike Denhof, & Gregory Morton
Published: 04/01/2013

Positive compass A strengths-based approach is a relatively novel way of thinking about mental health issues. Rather than focusing on “what's wrong” and pathology (illnesses and disorders), a strengths-based approach identifies the positive resources and abilities that people have, and builds future plans on that foundation.

Strengths include both internal and external resources. Internal resources are character strengths, such as the capacity to be courageous, caring, ethical, and persevering in the face of adversity. In the context of challenging work conditions, internal strengths are also exemplified by the ability to regulate one’s difficult emotions, to problem solve, to manage conflict, to act with integrity, to embrace and pursue a vision for the future (dreams, hopes and goals), to reframe challenges as opportunities, to effectively employ a healthy sense of humor, to grieve losses in a healthy manner, to evolve one’s profes-sional skill sets, aptitudes, and talents, and more.

External strengths involve reliable social support systems, such as a close-knit family, friends and community groups. In the case of professional work roles, strengths include up-to-date, data-driven and best-practices training; supportive and well-trained teams; and transformational leadership.

Recently we were asked why we focus on identifying problems and pathology in the population of corrections professionals nationwide instead of following a strictly strengths-based approach. This is an important question, and one worth taking the time to answer clearly and concertedly.

We shall start by saying that, in actuality, we do operate from a strengths-based ap-proach, both in our training and in our direct client therapy. At Desert Waters we do embrace, and always have employed strategies that capitalize on strengths to help cor-rections professionals and their families obtain optimal health and well-being.

But we are not strengths-based only. As such it is true that Desert Waters allocates significant resources to the study of staff’s struggles—such as Corrections Fatigue, PTSD, and depression. We do so because it is necessary. Most high-stress occupations, such as military service and police work, have decades of research into their taxing nature and specific health-related consequences. But this is not true in the field of correc-tions. Research into corrections-specific stressors and health-related consequences is still very much in its infancy. As such, a clear foundational description and definition of the problems and challenges impacting corrections professionals is both critical and long overdue.

Before strengths-based systems can be implemented, we must first know in what areas wellness needs to be improved, what challenges must be overcome, what systemic factors contribute to staff’s difficulties, and what individual characteristics help lessen problems. We need to know what we are dealing with if we are to deal with it effectively and successfully. Both problems and solutions need to be fully and clearly articulat-ed, and informed by high quality and rigorous research. Attempting to develop and implement systemic and individual solutions without a solid understanding of the nature of problems is not likely to be success-ful, as it will not be countering their root causes.

While general research into correctional employee stress started decades ago, to date little systematic knowledge has been generated about specific factors playing into corrections professionals’ elevated rates of suicide, depression, and PTSD. We also have little scientific information on divorce, family violence, sub-stance abuse and DUI convictions, or upon the relationships between staff member health and staff mem-ber misconduct, dismissals, turnover intentions, etc. During the last two years Desert Waters has collected a wealth of data and re-ported the first rigorous scientific estimates of PTSD prevalence in the U.S. cor-rections ranks. We also provided a foundation of statistics on staff exposure to incidents of violence, injury and death, comorbid health conditions, and evi-dence of the impact of these forces on staff health, substance use behavior, sick leave, utilization of health services, and life functioning (professional and person-al). This information is critical to the engineering of sound interventions and wellness initiatives.

We would go so far as to recommend that in light of the perspective described above, it is paramount on the part of administrators that staff of all ranks and disciplines be made to feel validated and supported in regards to these professionally inherent difficulties. The cost of lack of information is much too high. When whole organizations are impacted by trauma without processing it sufficiently, the workplace culture bears the signs of trauma similar to the way individuals do. That is, work cultures collectively exhibit emotional numbing, minimizing and denying pervasive emotional realities, dissociating through various means (such as through heavy alcohol use), and through avoiding or even persecuting those among them who openly acknowledge these issues. Such behaviors and attitudes become the norm—“the way it’s always been,” even though clearly unhealthy.

In the corrections culture of “machismo” and toughness, it is vital that staff understand the toxic impact of exposure to multiple traumatic incidents and other types of work-related strains. This understanding is nec-essary if corrections professionals are to overcome challenges such as internalized shame and stigma for having become “broken” and/or needing a “tune-up” or professional health assistance. To start taking steps toward improvement, staff needs to understand what they experienced at work and how that changed them. Such knowledge is de-shaming and empowering, as it enables staff to leave behind an avoidance mentality. Embracing truth spawns motivation to engage in more functional forms of thinking, learning and healing, mending of relationships, and movement toward more effective life strategies and resources.

When enough corrections professionals adopt such attitudes and actions, the privilege of culture shifts comes to bear, and, as a result, prevention and equipping staff in wellness practic-es, from the Training Academy onward, become the standard.

Desert Waters’ clinical experience supports this practice as well. Time after time we have encountered correctional em-ployees in treatment who were able to make progress after their negative and traumatic experiences were purged, ex-pressed, acknowledged and accepted as true for them. We have all had that experience in one way or another—how, only after another person validates and conveys understanding of our challenges, that we then become able to sort through our thoughts and emotions, and move into a more successful plan of action for the future.

Desert Waters is passionately focused on helping individual corrections professionals and corrections systems identify and increase their strengths. That is the goal of our reference to Corrections Fulfillment and the training we provide on that subject. System-wide Corrections Fulfillment is also the focus of our upcoming course, The Resilient Supervisor™.

At this early stage of charting the territory of corrections professionals’ wellness, it is our opinion that focus-ing exclusively on staff strengths without studying the causes and impacts of correctional challenges is premature. It is akin to presenting material on weight lifting to someone who has broken limbs. Recogniz-ing both the positives and the problems is a crucial early step in the development of this work.

Visit the Caterina Tudor page

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