Mental Health Matters: Supporting a Healthy Correctional Officer Workforce

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year,1 and this number is exacerbated in our country’s jails and prisons, where about 44 percent of people in jails and 37 percent of those in state or federal prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness,2 compared to about 20 percent of the general population.1

At ForHealth Consulting at UMass Chan Medical School, we are proud of the work that our Justice, Health, & Equity team has done to improve the health of justice-involved individuals. ForHealth Consulting partnered with the Massachusetts Medicaid program to develop the Behavioral Health-Justice Involved Initiative, an effective statewide reentry program for justice-involved individuals with a lived experience of substance use and mental health disorders.

Sadly, those frontline responders in the criminal justice system—our correctional officers and staff—can face potentially devastating and life-altering challenges that often go overlooked, which may result in a myriad of mental health and substance use effects.3

“For the half-million officers who work in prisons, there are over 2.5 million prisoners to watch. [Officers] are exhausted, traumatized, and often ignored or shunned if they express any weariness or misgivings about the work they are required to do,” said the American Addiction Center.3

Correctional officers experience depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at about four times the national average rate, and their suicide rate is 39 percent higher than the average national working population.4 A 2020 study found that the effect of traumatic incident exposure directed to self and/or peers was directly associated with greater work-to-family conflict.5

According to a Berkeley research study, officers who experience at least one symptom of PTSD “are less likely to believe that rehabilitation should be a central goal of incarceration than officers without symptoms of PTSD.”6 This shows how poor mental health in correctional officers can actually be at odds with the goals of the justice system to successfully rehabilitate justice-involved individuals. We cannot separate the two.

Our team at ForHealth Consulting knows that providing the best mental health interventions for justice-involved individuals means also supporting our correctional officers with their own mental health. The people doing the work need to be mentally well for the entire justice system to function at its optimal level.

Our experts found that further interventions were needed for correctional staff who experienced traumatic events and may suffer from substance use disorder and poor mental health outcomes.  As part of this work, we established an independent Office of the Ombuds for one state’s Department of Corrections (DOC), and incorporated wellness programs for their correctional officers and other staff.  

The Office helped the department focus on collaborating with staff and working to understand what will support their mental and physical wellness. This includes visiting facilities to talk to correctional staff about what would make their work life better and healthier and providing regular updates to staff about programs and initiatives. We supported physical activity by improving the DOC fitness facilities, and we now provide an annual mental health wellness update for all staff. 

Additionally, our work complements and enriches the DOC’s Employee Assistance Program, and we helped to customize to the specific impacts of public safety and related traumatic events, to improve the health outcomes—both physical and mental—of correctional officers and staff.  This includes outreach to officers in correctional facilities, work-life balance classes, and making resources readily available to staff when they need them.

The Office also collaborated with the office to amplify a suicide awareness campaign, which included resources on its website such as a five-video series called “The Ripple Effects of Suicide.” These videos profile corrections staff who have lost colleagues or family to suicide and detail the many effects these catastrophic events have on everyone around them. Bringing awareness to understanding the impacts of the work and decreasing stigma around accessing care for one’s mental health is a key component to the work being done through the Office. We strive to ensure that barriers to resources are decreased so that individuals can access services at the level they feel most comfortable with—we have made seeking support the right and brave choice. 

“Put your oxygen mask on first.” Anyone who has boarded an airplane has heard this phrase, in which we are instructed to tend to our own safety before we tend to another’s emergency.  By helping correctional officers and staff address their own mental health issues, we improve the overall health of the staff, enhance their working conditions, and contribute to more healthy environments at home. And it also means they can better help justice-involved individuals and prepare them for a hopefully successful return to the community.