Attending to Correctional Officers’ Wellness and Well-Being

Pandemic-related challenges affecting the corrections community in the last year or so have intensified the need to support correctional officers’ wellness and well-being.

There has never been a more difficult time to be a member of the law enforcement community. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, our brothers and sisters throughout civil service and law enforcement were seen as the heroes of their community. They were hailed for bravely “showing up” and doing the jobs they were sworn to do while dealing with a brand-new level of danger and risk amid the unknowns of the first global pandemic of this size and severity in nearly a century.

Fast forward to a practically whiplash-inducing change in the social and political climate against law enforcement officers, their role in the civil service community, and the state of policing and law enforcement as a whole.

New Demands and Concerns

Add to this the challenges of doing the strenuous work of parole officers throughout the pandemic. Community corrections officers (COs) have had to navigate social distancing restrictions and a litany of early release and transfers out of correctional facilities. Many states took these actions to reduce capacities to ensure the safety of the COs and workers within the facilities along with the health and well-being of the inmates.

As a result, COs in the community initially faced new working protocols such as video check-ins rather than in-person supervision. As an article in the American Journal of Criminal Justice noted, remote supervision can limit the CO’s personal connection with clients and ability to identify potentially risky behaviors or influences in the household. While video allows for more frequent check-ins, this approach also requires more attention to scheduling and coordinating meetings.

Those adaptations to working protocols added another type of potential stress on top of the fears associated with contracting COVID-19. Of course, those additional COVID-related factors were layered on top of already existing concerns for correctional officers.

A Continued Strain on Mental Health

Looking at data on the job role, a Massachusetts-based study found that the suicide rate among correctional officers was “around six times the rate of suicides in the general Massachusetts population.” Many corrections officers and law enforcement officers cite the inability to turn work off as a common continued stressor.

This is on top of the growing demands on correctional officers both in and out the correctional center routinely having to protect and surveil the mental and physical health of the individuals they are overseeing.

Change Starts From the Top

Throughout civil service as a whole, the stigma behind needing mental health resources is a tremendous barrier in seeking help for “the helpers.” Many members of the first responder community, especially those in law enforcement, worry about the perception from their colleagues, potentially disciplinary or punitive actions from their leadership, and whether or not any mental health resources or specialists they seek out will actually keep their concerns confidential.

It is important for leaders and supervisors in this field to lead by example, This may take the form of showing empathy and patience, encouraging open discussions on mental health and well-being, and sharing information on resources available to your staff.

For far too long, we’ve asked our law enforcement professionals to “suck it up” and have reinforced the idea that reaching out for any type of resource or assistance is seen as weak. You can lead the change with your actions and advocacy to let your team know that it’s okay to not be okay.

Actionable Change for Wellness

Promoting overall mental and emotional wellness is one part of the culture shift. Another important element is dedication to reducing the stigma of asking for help.

You’ll also need to ensure that the resources and training you have to support staff wellness are sound. I encourage you to reach out to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if your agency provides such a resource, and ask what the program offers an officer in need. It can oftentimes feel disingenuous to simply hand an officer the EAP’s phone number without actually knowing the types of support and resources an individual may be receiving.

As your team’s leader, you should have already researched the services that your institution provides. You should also plan your training to ensure that leaders and staff understand how to support one another in taking action to maintain wellness, reduce stress, and heal from work-related trauma.

Alongside your organization’s resources, the law enforcement mental health and suicide stigma reduction platform known as Blue H.E.L.P. has an immersive and easily searchable resource database. The website can also be useful for officers who are concerned about using any form of interdepartmental resources because of the perceived stigma.

Know That You’re Not Alone

It can be overwhelming to know that more needs to be done to keep your officers healthy and safe beyond training and pointing them toward resources. While we’ve given you some starting points, know that you’re not alone.

You can find specialists in the mental health and wellness space who dedicate their time and efforts to the first responder and law enforcement community. You may also be able to connect with former first responders who have become mental health providers or advocates.

The law enforcement community has worked hard to promote this cultural shift in recent years. The National Public Safety Partnership provides a free PDF highlighting some ways that leadership can promote correctional officer health — physical and emotional — and well-being.

It is worth taking some time to find the best blend of resources to fit your officers and their work setting, whether in the community or in a correctional facility. Thank you for your dedication to your team, your officers, and their families. Together we can work to be sure those who protect us are protected.

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James Boomhower, BS, FP-C, NR-P, C-NPT, CCISM, has been involved in EMS for over 15 years. He is lead instructor for Relias’ Distance CME online continuing education programs. Boomhower is currently a critical care transport specialist-paramedic and peer support coordinator with Boston MedFlight in Bedford, Massachusetts. He is the founder of the mental health and suicide awareness advocacy campaign "Stay Fit 4 Duty" and a national Crisis Text Line volunteer.

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