Helping Correctional Officers Improve Their Mental Health

After more than twenty years working as a correctional officer in Maryland, Dale Waldroff chooses a seat in a coffee shop with his back against a wall and eyes on the exits – a habit that's become second nature to him.

Waldroff, 49, says he is the only one out of his late-1990s recruit class to remain in what can be an "unforgiving" workplace with stressful shifts and daily disturbances, leading those who are paid to guard the inmates to feel like prisoners themselves at times. Subsequently, mental health issues and substance misuse are prevalent among correctional workers, who can struggle to reach out for help and get the treatment they need.

"Out of a 20-year career, you're probably doing about a 6 ½- to seven-year bit (in jail or prison) if you sit and add up all your time," says Waldroff, a corporal with the Anne Arundel County Department of Detention Facilities. "This is a profession where you're going to miss the recitals and the first baseball games and, unfortunately, even first steps and first words – but you know, it's a good, noble profession."

A career as a correctional officer offers a steady wage with health care coverage and other benefits for those who don't have a college degree, Waldroff says. But what often gets glossed over are the high risks of depression, sleep deprivation, suicide and divorce that go hand in hand with long hours, as well as a high likelihood of being injured while on duty.

Though there appears to be scant evidence confirming the statistic, some say the life expectancy of a correctional officer in the 1980s was 59 years – some 16 years below the overall life expectancy in 1984 and 20 years below the current average of about 79 years for the general population. The average correctional officer reportedly only lives 18 months after retirement, while a past study indicated correctional guards were 39% more likely to take their own lives than the rest of the working-age population. About 10% of correctional officers and 14% of retired guards reportedly attempted or thought about killing themselves.

Waldroff calls PTSD an "occupational hazard." Nearly 20% of correctional facility employees exhibited post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in one study – slightly higher than police officers (18%) and about the same as veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (11% to 20%).

The risks of the job are physical as well as mental. Correctional workers on average reported directly experiencing assault at least twice during their career, research available through the National Institute of Corrections shows. Waldroff recalls two separate incidents where an inmate lashed out against him during a strip search; though he was not severely injured, he remembers the punch to the jaw and the four-minute tussle years later, along with other violence he's observed while on shift.

"There are things that I've seen that, for lack of a better term, you can't unsee – things that you'd like nothing better than to forget, but you just can't," Waldroff says. He may talk about them with his coworkers from time to time – often using dark humor – but doesn't feel comfortable sharing them with his family at home.

Some experts say encouraging supervisors to discuss such issues, educating officers about available resources and eliminating the stigma that comes with asking for help can allow correctional facilities to address mental health struggles among their employees and other first responders before they get to a breaking point.

In late September, the Anne Arundel County Department of Detention Facilities, Recovery Centers of America and Anne Arundel County Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team held a training seminar to shine a light on poor mental health among correctional officers and the use of substances as a coping mechanism.

"As with all public safety, you don't realize the trauma we go through," says Lt. Steven Thomas, law enforcement coordinator for Anne Arundel County's Crisis Intervention Team and one of the presenters at the event.

"If we have an officer, say they respond to a horrific incident and they get blood on their uniform.

Most times, I can tell an officer, 'Go home and change your clothes and get a shower. Get fresh and then come back and we're going to do something to take care of that,'" he says. For correctional officers, though, "they are locked in the facility, and they don't have that freedom" to leave and recover a little after a traumatic event.

Carol Simmons, clinical director for Recovery Centers of America's Maryland Center for Addiction Treatment, says the reluctance to talk about behavioral and mental health issues, as well as substance abuse, among correctional officers and first responders has to do with the nature of their jobs.

"Their belief is that they are charged with taking care of others," says Simmons, who spoke at the event. Treatment forces them to loosen those boundaries, she says, "so that they could see themselves as a group of folks who are also vulnerable … and certainly worthy of being taken care of."

Richard Barton, chief executive officer of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, agrees.

"If you're in those professions, you're supposed to be strong – that's part of the job. You're supposed to handle these incidents, and you're supposed to be resilient in handling them, physically and mentally. And so when you show a weakness, and that's how this would be portrayed, that's the stigma," Barton says. "If nothing else, you're going to wonder if it'll affect your opportunity for promotion or for any kind of recognition. So the stigma is there – whether it's legitimate or deserved, it almost doesn't matter."

"They just want to pretend they're OK," he adds. "And when they reach out for help, they're no longer pretending that they're OK."

Simmons says a large part of breaking down that barrier comes through validating what officers are feeling.

"With trauma, the body responds naturally (to) an unnatural situation. So, really (we're) taking the time to say, 'Your body is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing as it responds to the trauma – the trauma is unnatural, but what you're experiencing is absolutely natural,'" Simmons says.

Barton says a critical incident stress management system that offers peer-to-peer support and also has a mental health professional available on-site – like the one Anne Arundel County's police department has created – can enable employees to get the help they so desperately need.

"I've seen that happen in departments where it's part of the culture. It's OK now to talk to those folks: 'Get it out, be done.' You can go to the session, not say a word, and other people will say stuff," Barton says. "Before long, you're opening up and talking."

For Waldroff, a temporary part-time job at Babies R Us helped him find a balance outside of his correctional duties. With his family history of alcoholism, he says, he fortunately knew not to search for comfort in a bottle.

As president of the Anne Arundel County detention officers union, Waldroff has spent the past few years advocating for local and state policies to recognize and provide for third-party and peer-support resources that address and treat PTSD, mental health and substance use disorders among first responders, including correctional officers.

"Who better to talk to than the people that work with you every day, that can sit down and say, 'Hey, I've known you for 15 years, I'm seeing a change in you'? Or being able to pull someone aside and say, 'Hey, look, I've dealt with this and I just don't know how to mentally process it,'" Waldroff says. "It's a subject (my department is) not familiar with, as far as these kinds of things go. But, you know, the fact that they're willing to have these conversations, to learn, to broaden their horizon – to me that speaks volumes in the positive."

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