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The Mental Health Crisis in the Corrections Profession: An Old Problem Still Unsolved
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 01/25/2016

Mental health
One of the most significant crises facing the corrections profession is the mental health of correctional officers and other staff members. The crisis is no secret—it has been discussed on this site, for example, more than once over the past few years. Yet it persists, and because of the toll it takes on those who serve in this field, it deserves continued focus. One expert has opined that the correctional profession’s attitudes towards mental health are roughly where those of the U.S. military were 10 to 15 years ago, and the point is not only valid but meaningful.

As the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq began in 2001 and 2003, the U.S. military had not dealt with prolonged combat since the Vietnam War. These two wars were extensive both in breadth and duration, involving hundreds of thousands of personnel and years of fighting. Given the particularly frustrating nature of counterinsurgency operations and the lethality of improvised explosive devices, it was not long before returning personnel began showing signs of mental trauma. But military culture (and this is of course a generalization of common attitudes) frowned on asking for help with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On a personal level doing so was viewed (or at the very least those who were suffering felt they would be viewed) as weak. On a professional level, most thought that seeking treatment would be a probable career-killer, especially for those whose positions required a security clearance.

Time, experience, and the sheer numbers of service members affected by PTSD and other combat-related mental health issues have changed attitudes within the military. Service members at all levels are now encouraged and expected to ask for help, as well as to extend help and support to those around them who may be in need. This is the cultural change that needs to take place in the corrections profession. Surely if those who faced the nation’s enemies in combat can seek counseling and other treatment, then those who daily walk another kind of “front line” can do so as well.

The problem, in fact, is actually worse in corrections than it is in the military. According to the nonprofit Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO), correctional officers suffer PTSD at a rate over twice that of military veterans. Caterina Spinaris of DWCO conducted a study in 2011 that identified PTSD in 34 percent of correctional officers versus 14 percent of veterans—and half of those officers were also suffering depression. Other research has found that COs commit suicide at double the rate of the general public and of police officers, with a suicide risk rate 39 percent greater than that of all other professions combined. Moreover, while a veteran leaves combat after a matter of months, a CO continues in his or her stressful environment day in and day out, often for years.

The individual costs can be devastating; suicide is one obvious tragic outcome, but significantly higher levels of alcoholism, divorce, and health problems such as hypertension and cardiac disease are common among corrections professionals. A 2001 study conducted by John B. Rogers reveals a litany of bleak statistics: 25 percent of respondents reported a lack of emotional responsiveness…20 percent reported not being able to find pleasure in anything…13 percent reported feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or both. Health conditions were similar: fully half reported a lack of energy or excessive fatigue…44 percent experienced frequent headaches…12 percent suffered migraines at least monthly…16 percent experienced shortness of breath at least once a month…30 percent had undergone a significant change in appetite.

Yet the corrections system as a whole suffers as well. Spinaris found that officers suffering PTSD or depression had absenteeism rates about one-third higher than average, and for those with both conditions the rate was double the average. During interviews current and former corrections officers have confirmed anecdotally that this harsh mental health environment contributes to excessive use of force incidents.

Change must come at both the individual and the organizational levels, much as it did for the military. Corrections professionals must discard the ingrained stigma associated with mental health issues. As with combat, the correctional environment produces protracted levels of stress. While actual serious incidents are relatively rare, the possibility that such an incident could occur at any moment means officers can never relax—much as combat has famously been described as “long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of intense terror.” The human body reacts in concrete, physical ways to elevated stress levels; by no means is any of this “all in anyone’s head.” If a fellow officer had cancer or diabetes, the normal response would be sympathy and support, not stigma. PTSD or depression is no different.

Corrections professionals have also reported shortcomings, or at best widely inconsistent results, in agency responses to mental health issues among staff. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are common these days, but not every plan is equal: individuals have described plans in Colorado and Massachusetts as “amazing” and “very helpful,” respectively, while another said that New York’s program was nearly useless to her. While obviously these are single experiences with an entire agency’s EAP, clearly at least in some instances these programs are failing those they are intended to serve.

In yet another echo of the military experience with mental health, corrections professionals also fear that reaching out for help could mean the loss of their job. For those most seriously affected in particular, there is a very real possibility that examination by an agency psychiatrist could result in decertification as a corrections officer and the abrupt end of a career. Agencies must put mechanisms in place that move those who are a legitimate danger to themselves or others to a more appropriate position without punishing the individual for seeking help.

Changing an entire profession’s culture is no quick or easy undertaking. For the U.S. military, it required over a decade. But our colleagues are literally suffering and dying, and the only way to save lives is to radically change the way we approach mental health issues and their resolution.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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