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Suicides - A break in the thin Blue Line
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 11/25/2013

Suicide prevention Correctional & Detention Officers are true blue members of a close knit law enforcement family but are often forgotten in their needs and challenges when it comes to priorities and strategic planning on job safety issues. Although this may be denied by many, the facts reveal there is a serious problem building today. Officers function as individuals or in teams and are like family. When one member hurts either physically or mentally, so does the rest of the family. This is especially true when they lose a brother or sister in uniform to a suicide as a death of one of their own is much more tragic and difficult to handle than anything else on their tour of duty.

Seldom hailed as heroes or “good guys” these peacemakers are resilient, strong and filled with courage that enables them to walk some of the toughest beats out there inside large jails and prisons. The challenges they deal with inside can and will often impact their own wellness and takes a toll for some that results in taking their demise at their own hands leaving many puzzled and wondering what made this drastic choice to end a life come to the point of hopelessness and no return. Often they only have each other to lean on and even then they whisper their words of concern.

In a profession where there is seldom talk about self-awareness or perseverance related to their personal wellness there are many “secrets” often never revealed until it is too late. Unable or unwilling to talk about their problems even with those they confide in or trust they carry this burden all the way to the end. It seems almost impossible that someone so strong and so courageous to work in a most volatile and hostile environment would take their own life but it happens way too often in this line of work.

Working with convicted felons and individuals of poor moral character takes its toll as well; not only is the job difficult working with difficult people but it requires a mental awareness and challenges that taxes the body, spirit and mind endlessly. Overtime and fatigue are contributing factors as well as other sources that create stress and anxiety for these officers. Finally, the fact remains that the fear of being disciplined unfairly in this highly bureaucratic drive work environment is often the case when the administrations seeks scapegoats for their systemic failures.

Silently and surreptitiously therein develops a callousness towards compassion and human kindness that is often reversed and impacts their own ability to adjust to their own personal relationships and social needs. Stress slips in and the mind begins to suffer. Instead of dealing with it just in the workplace they take it home and find new problems created by their apathies building up with personal relationships creating stress in their personal affairs such as their marriage, financial and social activities.

Agency leadership must address officer mental health issues and focus on the intervention and prevention of suicides within their ranks. They must quickly realize before it is too late that officer safety does not limit itself in the workplace but that it is also a part of a extended continuum of keeping them safe while off duty as well. They have a moral and legal responsibility to do this even at an added expense during tight budgets.

Human Resource administrators should focus on raising awareness and lifting the clouds of secrecy on mental health needs providing a “safe” environment to allow treatment to be confidential and effective. They should reach out and acquire mental health providers that will apply today’s best practices and dedicate sufficient time for training blocks focusing on staff safety including those intimate mental health concerns related to supporting and understanding how mental health issues and associated stigmas impact law enforcement duty-bound jobs and responsibilities.

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Car’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:



Comments:

  1. Eitel Status on 12/03/2013:

    Bryanna, I would like to talk to you more about your organization. Could you please email me at sdeit01@gmail.com. Thanks! Eitel Status

  2. bryanna_mellen on 12/03/2013:

    Thank you so much for writing this article, I am currently starting my own non-profit organization in Massachusetts called The On Guard Initiative, and our mission is to focus on mental health awareness for Correction Officers. I decided to do this because my father, who was a CO for 22 years, took his own life in an extremely tragic way. This is a serious issue that is increasing in severity as the years progress, and it is time to bring the it to light. Thank you so much again for writing this article. Visit our facebook page facebook.com/onguardinitiative to see what we have been doing.

  3. Eitel Status on 11/28/2013:

    I would like to say thank you to ToersBijns for writing this article on suicide. I am what they call a "suicide survivor". A suicide survivor is some one who has a family member, friend, or an acquaintance who successfully died by suicide. My cousin was about to turn 21 when he shot himself. I also had a distant cousin shoot herself when I was around 12 years old. I recently started studies in suicidology due to the high suicide rate in the MN military. It just so happens MN has the highest rate in the country of our men and women in uniform. This caused great concern for me, especially since I just recently retired after 24 years of service with my latest branch of service being the MN Air National Guard. Early on in my quest to find out more, I discovered that several correctional officers within the state of MN have also died by suicide. There are great similarities with the military and the corrections line of work. They both can take a mental and physical toll on people and to address these issues becomes very complex. Since it is complex, it is hard to pinpoint where to start in bringing fulfillment to a persons soul. Many times we as correctional officers do not realize what kind of an impact working in this line of work has. The most important aspect of this issue that must be addressed is the stigma of suicide and mental health. Many do not say a word in order to save face with their peers and employers by preventing them to think you are crazy for your thoughts on committing suicide. We need to take a different stance on suicide, PTSD, and depression. We need to know it is okay to talk with a therapist or other health care professional with out the possibility of losing our jobs.


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