I recently spoke with a reporter who was gathering material for an upcoming documentary on the subject of correctional officer suicide.
My aim for one part of the conversation was to explain how aspects of correctional work, if not processed properly, may contribute to suicidal thinking and behaviors.
During the course of our conversation, I mentioned traumatic exposure at work as one of these possible contributors. I pointed out the fact that, during the course of their careers, correctional personnel are typically exposed to diverse types of incidents of violence, injury or death, either directly or indirectly.
In my discussion with the reporter, I added that research supports the notion that both direct and indirect exposure to these types of incidents is potentially traumatizing and can result in the development of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), clinical depression and substance abuse disorders—all of which are risk factors for the development of suicidal thinking and behaviors.
[Direct traumatic exposure includes experiencing potentially traumatizing events oneself (such as being assaulted or threatened) or witnessing, in real time, incidents of violence, injury, or death. Indirect traumatic exposure involves learning about such events that have already occurred, such as by reading about them, viewing them digitally, or being told about them.
Both direct and indirect traumatic exposure are rampant in correctional work. It is important to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)1 recognizes that indirect traumatic exposure which is work-related—including electronically or through photographs—can result in the development of PTSD.]
In my attempt to further describe the effects of correctional staff’s traumatic exposure on the job, I spoke to the reporter about the term Complex Trauma .
This term has been used by clinicians and researchers to denote the effects on children and adolescents of multiple exposures to traumatic events. Examples of that are childhood physical or sexual abuse over several years and perhaps by more than one perpetrator. Complex Trauma researchers point out that the repeated “pummeling” of a child with the force of traumatic incidents results in consequences that go beyond the symptoms of PTSD that is caused by a single, one-time exposure to trauma. Effects of repeated traumatic exposure can run deep, possibly damaging victims’ innermost core in pervasive and lasting ways, distorting their “brain wiring” and fundamentals of their personality.
However, even this concept of Complex Trauma (which was originated to describe effects of repeated childhood trauma) does not fully capture the experience of correctional professionals.
The reason for that is that usually trauma survivors who suffer from PTSD or Complex Trauma can relegate their experience to the past. They have survived the traumatic incidents, and put these events behind them. These incidents are part of their history; they are no longer part of ongoing or anticipated occurrences in their life.
For correctional professionals though, the possibility of traumatic exposure is far from over. Rather, the likelihood of additional future exposures is very high, practically a certainty, a matter of WHEN, not IF.
As a result, correctional staff may be exposed to a potentially traumatic event and then report back to work the next day, fully knowing that sooner or later they will encounter another such exposure, whether of the same type or different than before.
Anticipating the occurrence of future trauma on the job keeps employees in a continual state of heightened vigilance and readiness to act. This repeated activation of staff’s nervous systems results in “wear-and-tear” both physically and emotionally, due to maintaining the stress response on an ongoing basis. It is as if one is perpetually crouched down on the track, toes dug into the ground, ready to sprint and run a race; and after completing that race, returning to the crouched position, instead of walking off the track and relaxing.
The corrosive effects of anticipated new dangers and fresh trauma are never truly over as long as correctional staff remain in this line of work. Staff cannot take deep breaths (both figuratively and literally), relax, knowing that they are out of the danger zone, and set their sights on the goals of healing and living peaceful lives. While still employed in corrections, staff understandably may think that they cannot afford to let their guard down, as they fear that this would result in them becoming complacent or careless, rendering them and those around them unsafe.
Besides, the journey of healing after trauma requires removing one’s emotional armor and becoming vulnerable, at least with one person—the one offering the treatment that facilitates healing and/or peer support. This can be very hard to do for staff who have to go back to work the next day. It takes tremendous “soul flexibility” to take one’s emotional armor off and later put it back on at will. It is easier for staff to simply keep their armor on, and in doing so, disrupt the healing process.
Healing also takes a tremendous amount of intentional pursuit and energy. Staff who are still employed in corrections cannot fully invest in the healing process in the way persons would who are retired or who no longer work in corrections. A substantial portion of the energy and focus of those still employed in corrections needs to remain invested in preparing to deal with future incidents of violence, injury or death, and coping with their aftermath, in addition to a multitude of other stressors that come with their job. This is necessary if they are going to be able to report back to work, ready to deal with more such incidents.
Even when correctional staff do take steps to embark on a healing journey—which, even with its limitations, is truly their only constructive option—a fresh traumatic encounter can steal gains they have so painstakingly secured through treatment and/or peer support, maybe even sending them back to square one.
It may then be the case that due to the open-ended likelihood of traumatic exposure on the job, staff cannot truly pursue healing fully from trauma until they are in a job role that minimizes or eliminates such exposure, or until they leave corrections work, or until they are retired. (Here’s an illustration of what I mean by that. A custody staff member, who was recently promoted out of an institution to a new work setting that did not include offender contact, put it this way: “I miss the morale and team aspect of the institution, but the decompression over the past 30 days has been incredible.” What this person described here is experiencing the ability to take deep breaths figuratively and literally, and begin to relax, as opposed to being stuck in a state of chronic hypervigilance. This did not happen until he left a work environment that was rife with danger, violence, injury, and death.)
After I described these issues, the interviewer I was talking to exclaimed, “So Post-traumatic Stress Disorder for correctional officers is not really ‘Post.’ It’s not in the past. The trauma is not over. It should really be called, ‘Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder.’”
This comment hit me hard, so much so, that it prompted me to write this article about the quandary that correctional staff find themselves in as they continue to bravely serve in this line of work.
And regarding the subject of our interview—the high suicide rate of correctional staff—it is not difficult to see how repeated traumatic stress coupled with other occupational stressors can undermine staff’s capacity to bounce back after hardship, and erode their resolve to choose life.
Given the indisputably hazardous nature of the job, one solution may be to offer correctional staff (especially custody staff) adequate retirement options after 20 years of service. Even 20 years of correctional work can be a very long time, especially in certain institutions. This of course is the subject for another set of conversations, and not for this article. In the meantime, it is critical to acknowledge the unique stressors impinging on correctional employees, and emphasize the need to continue searching for ways to support them so they can have healthy lives and productive careers.
1American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) (Fifth Ed.). Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.