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What Corrections Needs to Know about Suicide Loss
By Tony Salvatore & Genevieve Bartuski
Published: 08/28/2017

Officer incident Correctional Officers (COs) have a suicide rate almost 40% higher than the rest of the US working population. Between 1999 and 2008, 17 COs died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds in the facilities where they worked. Wherever such deaths take place, colleagues and other prison staff are left to cope with suicide loss.

Suicide loss is severe emotional trauma experienced by those affected by a suicide. A number of factors may bring it about. Suicides produce shock and disbelief; unanswerable questions about the deceased’s intent; and strong feelings of anger, betrayal, abandonment, shame, and guilt. All may be present after a CO suicide.

COs are at high risk of suicide and prisons must have resources in place to deal with the aftermath of CO suicides. This is known as postvention and it must be part of every institution’s suicide prevention program. Postvention can enable those distressed by suicide loss to cope in the grief-unfriendly setting of a prison.

Anyone who is emotionally affected by the suicide of someone with whom they have some relationship is a suicide loss survivor. Some suicide loss survivors experience a short-term bereavement which passes within several weeks. Those with stronger ties to the deceased may experience a longer, more intense bereavement of one year or longer. This is typically the case with COs after the suicide of a fellow officer.

COs may feel that they let a colleague down or missed warning signs. They may angry because a friend chose to leave them. They may be hurt that a colleague did not seek their aid or tell them of their pain. The unanticipated nature of most suicides leads to an obsessive search for the "why." Being blindsided by suicide generates anxiety, fear, and vulnerability. Stigma and shame may keep survivors from seeking help.

Culture conditions the response to a suicide. Every prison has two subcultures. One shared by COs and another by inmates. The former dictates strength, toughness, self-reliance, and control. The latter demands strength, toughness, and opposition to control. Together these subcultures create an environment antagonistic to mourning, bereavement, and grief. COs are part of a peer subculture intolerant of any outward show of weakness and relate to an inmate subculture that prays on it.

The inhospitality of prison subcultures to grief does not prevent feeling loss, but it makes grieving difficult. Grief is social in nature and requires the support of others. This is especially true of the grief that follows a suicide. In prison, mutual support may be tentative or nonexistent. COs are expected to “man up.”

CO are susceptible to “disenfranchised grief,” which occurs when grief is not recognized, socially sanctioned, or cannot be expressed. The suicide loss of COs can be intensified by indifference, inappropriate comments, or criticism. Workplace grief that is not acknowledged does not dissipate. It creates stress and may produce complicated grief reactions and depression.

There are two styles of grieving. Instrumental grieving is inward, less emotional, and problem-solving in nature. Intuitive grieving is expressive, emotional, and more about feelings. COs tend to be instrumental grievers and are inclined to repress loss and try to work through it.

In the first hours and days after a suicide, those in proximity to the victim may need:
  • To see how their feelings are normal. Those bereaved by suicide may think they are suffering a psychiatric crisis.
  • To get support. Suicide loss is best endured with help. A good source of help is contact with others who had the experience.
  • To have time to deal with their loss. A three-day funeral leave will not suffice. Suicide loss does not conform to the “get over it” approach to grieving.
Postvention meets these needs. It should be available after every suicide.

Postvention involves support with the grieving process and assisting those who may be vulnerable to anxiety and depressive disorders, suicidal ideation, self-medicating and other harmful outcomes. Every prison should have a postvention plan. Postvention must be voluntary but its availability is not optional.

Prison psychologists, nurses, or social workers can take these steps soon after a staff suicide:
  • Establish rapport with survivors - Extend an offer of help and caring by "being there." This can be done on both an individual basis or in group meetings.
  • Initiate grief normalization - Affected staff must be able to discuss their feelings and concerns. They must learn that their emotional turmoil is understandable.
  • Assist in mobilizing the support system - Survivors should know about resources, e.g., physician, clergyperson, other staff or inmates or trusted friends.
  • Share information on community services - Provide contact information for local grief support resources if available. Local resources may be found on the Internet.
  • Maintain copies of suicide loss materials – These may be secured from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.AFSP.org) and adapted for correctional use.
Professional-led, peer-led, and professional-peer co-led suicide loss support groups can help survivors cope with loss by reducing marginalization, providing mutual aid, and sharing insights. Individual grief counseling may sometimes be needed.

Postvention also offsets the possible onset of suicide risk in COs affected by a peer’s suicide. Suicide loss may amplify other suicide risk factors, promote suicidal ideation, and lead to more serious suicidal behavior.

Postvention can contribute to reducing trauma in individuals already carrying many severe stressors. Prison clinicians and administrators can draw on the emerging literature for managers on coping with suicide in the workplace to fashion a strategy to help their personnel recover from suicide loss in their facilities.

Tony Salvatore, MA, directs suicide prevention at Montgomery County Emergency Service, a nonprofit psychiatric emergency hospital in Norristown, PA.

Genevieve Bartuski, PsyD is a psychologist with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma.


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