Supporting and recognizing correctional officer mental health and wellness.
Corrections officers are tasked with a difficult job. The nature of the profession places corrections officers at an increased risk for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and in extreme cases, suicide. By recognizing the importance of correctional officer mental health, we can ensure that this public safety professionals have access to the resources they need to properly cope with occupational stress.
Correctional officers face a set of stressors specific to their work environment. Corrections officers are often indoors for long periods of time and must remain alert and high-functioning at all times for their safety and the safety of others. Spending extended periods of time in this hyper-vigilant state is demanding on both the brain and body.
Many corrections officers are selective in when and how they offload the realities of their day. Why? It can be challenging to explain critical incidents with friends and family who may not understand or may be upset hearing details of stressful situations. Further still, decompressing with fellow officers can also feel challenging as there is a pervasive stigma of mental health conversations in the public safety profession as a whole. The result? Many officers respond to questions about their well-being with a short — and often untrue — “I’m good.”
How can we effectively begin and facilitate the conversation around correctional mental health? There are a few key first steps.
1. Start having conversations
Addressing mental health and wellness can be a difficult process, especially in the corrections industry, where stigma around mental health exists. But left unchecked, this stress can lead to burnout, turnover, and in extreme cases, even suicide. In fact, a 2018 study by UC Berkeley revealed that more than 7 in 10 participants haven’t told anyone about suicidal thoughts they’ve experienced as a result of their work.
To create an opportunity for officers to understand and address these problems, it’s crucial to encourage open dialogue about the unique stressors in the corrections field. You will not be an expert in fostering these conversations overnight, and that’s okay. The key is to be proactive and patient. Start by opening the door for corrections officers to have these conversations. Seek out podcasts, videos and other resources about mental health and wellness to discover and share new methods of talking about and treating issues related to workplace stress. Treat the process like a training session: You are simply learning new methods and tactical approaches to stay psychologically safe, just as you do for physical safety.
After opening the door to conversation, set aside times and places where officers can ask open-ended questions about one another's experiences. Getting officers to talk to each other is critical in creating a comfortable space where mental health conversations can occur, ultimately breaking through that “I’m good” barrier.
2: Engage in brain health education
Correctional environments are high-stress, which can directly contribute to a decline in mental health and wellness. It is vital that correctional officers understand this correlation and have resources at their finger tips to support mental resilience.
During agency-led trainings, incorporate information about officer mental health and resources to educate on what is available to personnel. Consider providing resiliency techniques for officers to add to their tool belt relating to mental hygiene habits before, during and after critical events.
No two tool belts will be the same, and not every technique will work in a given situation. The most effective treatments and techniques will vary depending on the individual and situation. Providing ample resources and techniques ensures that officers have options and will be empowered to find what works best for them today and beyond.
3: Raise awareness of culturally competent resources
Of course, resources and techniques created by those who truly “get it” when it comes to the unique stressors of corrections officers can be hard to find. Many agencies have found success with EAPs, regional peer support teams, or local mental health organizations. Ask around to other facilities to see what resources they have found particularly useful.
If you have found a resource that works for you, share it if you feel comfortable doing so. Creating internal networks of reliable mental health information and resources is crucial to for officers around the country. Agencies that have found success in opening the door for mental health conversations all have one thing in common: their leaders share information with their officers about what works and what doesn’t, and they share it often. Everyone starts at a different point in their mental health and wellness journey, but knowing what resources are out there and what has worked for others can have a profound impact on those who may be struggling.
Join Axon Aid’s Wellness network on MyAxon to connect, share resources and continue the conversation about correctional officer mental health.
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Correctional Officers Face Mental Health Challenges
Emotional tools to build correctional officer resiliency
Correctional Officer Safety and Wellness — What we learned from the Research Literature