Mental Wellness Among Correctional Officers

By George Vergolias

When was the last time you checked on your correctional officers’ mental well-being? For many, the answer is “not recently.” Yet, given how very much we ask of correctional officers (COs), the burden they carry needs to be acknowledged and addressed before it’s too late.

COs experience traumatic events in the line of duty that few outside the system can comprehend. But within the system, the impact of repeated trauma and the resulting deterioration of mental wellness and its ramifications affect not only the individual CO but also their ability to perform their duties.

According to One Voice United, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to give frontline staff a voice in corrections reform, COs confront serious mental wellness challenges at a rate far higher than the general population. Their research shows that 31% of COs experience depression, compared to 9.1% of the general population, and 34.1% of COs experience post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to 3.5% of the general population.

When left unaddressed, mental wellness struggles can lead to diminished performance, absenteeism, an inability to manage emotions, high turnover and increased risk to both employees and inmates. Already in some state facilities, annual CO turnover is as high as 55%.  Given the critical role COs play in work and society, there is an enormous potential toll—including human, financial and community—that can no longer go unacknowledged.

It’s time to break down the barriers to better mental wellness in America’s corrections systems by providing personalized, confidential and evidence-based mental wellness support designed specifically for employees in high-stress, high-test environments.

Common Barriers to Addressing Mental Wellness

In corrections, as in other law enforcement and first responder professions, it can be difficult for individuals to admit they need help managing or proactively supporting their mental wellness. A common motto is “eight and the gate,” meaning just make it through your 8-hour shift and leave the stress at the gate on your way out. But studies show that corrections professionals pay a heavy price working within this culture. In a typical year, a shocking 45% of COs witness or experience the suicide of a colleague.

The very nature of the profession requires COs to be emotionally and physically resilient, and the correctional environment is known for its toughness. COs are selected based on perceived strength and firmness, as these qualities are crucial in dealing with the challenges of corrections work. Consequently, it becomes difficult for them to let their guard down, not only with inmates but also with their fellow officers.

The fear of “being found out” also plays a part in keeping COs from seeking support. The profession carries a stigma against asking for help, and COs fear that seeking assistance may compromise their authority and effectiveness. This fear extends both to inmates discovering that a CO is seeking psychological help and fellow officers judging a colleague as weak or unreliable if they find out about their struggles. As a result, many COs find it difficult to feel comfortable and safe enough to reach out for the support they may desperately need.

On the operations side, leadership teams can also face barriers when providing COs with appropriate resources. They may lack awareness or understanding of the severity of challenges faced by COs, have budget limitations, be skeptical of the effectiveness of resources, or have logistical challenges related to on or off-site mental wellness support.

Some leaders attempt to address these barriers by offering on-site wellness resources or local health and wellness providers. But this opens up a new set of issues. Often these resources lack the expertise needed to address the high level of trauma that COs experience, creating a downward cycle of poor treatment experiences, unresolved issues and resistance to support.

Responsibilities of Leadership

Breaking the pattern and creating an environment that truly supports its COs requires that leaders proactively work to create a culture that accepts and rewards mental wellness. To begin, identify where mental wellness support fits within the framework of the organization. This is an important path to build consensus and justify the investment. With leadership on board, the next steps can be deployment and measurement to support ongoing investment.

Step 1: Identify existing resources and gaps in support

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) offer short-term assistance for work performance issues and can be a beneficial resource for COs with intermittent support needs. Designed to be used by all employees and industries, EAPs offer a broad set of helpful services. But correctional facilities also need very select, targeted services that are carefully and thoughtfully designed for COs. They require near immediate support and a consistent counselor across visits who is highly skilled in CO challenges. Rather than think about CO mental wellness counseling as a replacement for EAP services, it should be used to augment existing resources and deliver clinical support.

Step 2: Vet and deploy professional mental wellness support

A trusted mental wellness support partner should be well-rounded. The counselors must be highly available, and their processes must be convenient to utilize and confidential. They should collaborate with a facilities’ internal resources to ensure a strong cultural fit, seamless execution, efficacy and satisfaction.

Step 3: Measure the effect and demonstrate the value of the investment

While general wellness programs have traditionally been difficult to measure, this is not the case with all resources. It’s important for your clinical partner to use a vetted, third-party provider to anonymously survey COs about their experience with their counselors. Functional improvements can and should be measured using industry standard metrics and tools. And aggregated, anonymized data from sessions can help leaders gain insights into workplace behavioral health trends and inform programmatic improvements.

Investing in the right resources is only the first step. Second, leaders must ensure that COs use the services to create measurable, positive change. Here are two key tips for leaders who are ready to create change.

Tip 1: Provide easy and stigma-free access to confidential resources

To extend resources to COs, consider partnering with an organization that has services specifically designed to provide the convenient and stigma-free clinical mental wellness support that COs require. Leveraging a partner with proven, evidence-based services, deep expertise, and a network of clinicians trained and versed in CO challenges, ensures that COs have personalized support designed to meet their mental wellness needs and objectives.

Tip 2: Promote an inclusive culture of mental wellness

Cultural shifts come from the top. Leadership should promote ongoing conversations and internal communications about the importance of mental wellness to help COs understand the specialized resources being offered to them and why, reiterate privacy and confidentiality, encourage utilization and provide helpful language to use when sharing with other COs. Empowering COs to normalize the act of seeking help can have a positive rolling effect on other COs and the incarcerated individuals under their guard and create a stronger culture of well-being.

Empowering CO Mental Wellness

Without appropriate evidence-based mental wellness support, correctional facilities will continue to struggle, losing employees to attrition, suicide, violence and more. This is an unsustainable model, with far-reaching implications on human resources and human resilience, regulatory oversight, safety, security, the community at large and yes—even funding and financial stability.

But when provided with mental wellness support, COs can learn to better manage through personal and organizational disruption and better process high levels of ongoing work-related stress. They can learn how to cope with trauma in healthy ways that don’t include shutting down or compartmentalizing, as they’ve often been taught to do.

With the right provider, the individuals who work in our nation’s correctional systems can feel confident that they have a professional partner who is clinically trained to work with COs and individuals in high-stress, high-test jobs that experience unique stressors. They’ll have a resource who will privately and confidentially address complex clinical issues such as substance abuse, burnout, depression, anxiety, or other mental wellness issues, without stigma and repercussions.

It’s time to create a new mindset and a new environment where protecting the mental wellness of COs is not only accepted; it’s expected.

George L. Vergolias, PsyD, CTM, chief clinical officer at R3 Continuum, oversees and leads R3 Continuum’s Clinical Risk, Threat of Violence and Workplace Violence programs, and has directly assessed or managed more than 1,000 cases related to threat of violence or self-harm, sexual assault, stalking and communicated threats. He brings over 20 years of experience as a forensic psychologist and certified threat manager to bear in an effort to help leaders, organizations, employees and communities heal, optimize and ultimately thrive before, during and after disruption.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Correctional News.