Dr. Ricciardelli 2smlBy David Krough, TJJD Communications

Addressing the need to maintain mental health for those who work in corrections is an obvious necessity – but somewhere between employees on the front lines and the population in custody, it seems that the team leaders are often the ones getting left behind.

Dr. Rosemary Ricciardelli presented on the topic at the Impact of Mental Health on Leaders in a Correctional Setting at the Barbara Jordan Building, in Austin, on Monday, April 22. About 150 juvenile justice professionals from TJJD and probation departments across the state attended.

Ricciardelli is a highly credentialed professor and published author in the fields of corrections, prisons and wellness. She is the research chair in Safety, Security, and Wellness at the Fisheries and Marine Institute at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Ricciardelli began her talk by explaining how corrections employees are often the last stop for society in dealing with the incarcerated – likely the most traumatized population in society.

“If you’re working in a prison you’re working with the most vulnerable people in society and you’re not celebrated,” Ricciardelli says.

Her research includes a large study of 900 corrections staffers done in Ontario, the results of which Ricciardelli said, have since been replicated across the provinces in Canada.

Ricciardelli says a staggering 59 percent of those corrections staff surveyed in her studies showed signs of some kind of mental health disorder. The top three being major depression, posttraumatic stress and anxiety. Despite the researchers’ findings, many participants reported never accessing formal mental health supports.

The categories for stress-related mental health conditions include: operational stress injuries – diagnosable mental disorders encountered on the job by first responders and public safety workers; post-traumatic stress injuries resulting from being exposed to such events and moral injury – which can come from having to compromise deeply held moral, ethical or spiritual beliefs while participating in on-the-job events or even from legal or bureaucratic consequences.

And aside from being on the front line of conflict in corrections’ populations, the top two most stressful situations reported on the job are dealing with colleagues and management. Combined, those two issues add up to 50% of stress level. That was followed by the stress of having to adapt to the constant changes in legislative policies and understaffing.

In the field of corrections, there are several unique issues in dealing with mental health that are not present in most other professions, Ricciardelli said.

Among those, is the necessity of staff and management to remain detached emotionally from people in their care, while at the same time, balancing sometimes highly-charged and traumatic situations, with the need to maintain extreme confidentiality.

“We tell everyone not to display their emotions (while on the job) then get upset when they don’t talk about what is bothering them,” she says. “We can all present how we react (but) we can’t (always) control how we feel inside.”

Managers Face Unique Set of Issues

Corrections managers have the delicate position of being tasked with the responsibility of those under them, as well as feeling the pressures from government agencies and the public to whom they serve – often in the position of leaving their own mental health needs for last, Ricciardelli says.

Respondents in one survey said often times after a potential psychologically traumatic event (PPTE) managers took care of their corrections officers, but often were just expected to go right back to work themselves.

In her surveys, about 60 percent of managerial level staff reported receiving formal training and education for addressing the mental health of others in their but only about 30 percent reported addressing their own mental health.

Those who work in correctional justice settings face many of the same situations as other first responders such as police, paramedics, firefighters and the military.

But one major difference in dealing with a traumatic scene, is that most have the ability to remove themselves from the physical location where a situation may have happened. In corrections, Ricciardelli said, the traumatic situations happen in their daily workplace – where afterwards, inmates “just have to go to their room.”

“That space is your (work) space and you will always relive that.”

This also extends to parole and probation situations to the point where corrections workers are nearly surrounded at all times with their subjects and the consequences of their decisions at work.

Vicarious trauma can also be experienced by others around them, but not necessarily every potential trauma encounter is “psychologically” traumatic, Ricciardelli explained.

“Trauma is not on a hierarchy because you don’t know what (specifically) is going to impact you.”

Solutions: Recognize Impacts and Corrections Workers as First Responders

One proposal to help address mental health issues involves reclassifying corrections officers as state-recognized first responders along with fire, police and medical services. This could help expand training and other incentives for mental health care.

A major issue in dealing with potential psychologically traumatic events is the post-event investigation, whether it be interdepartmental or from a higher-level agency, be it local, state or federal.

Dr. Ricchiardelli 3 sml“The process itself makes you feel like you did something wrong, even if your actions aren’t wrong, it’s a split-second decision,” Ricciardelli says. “We need to say ‘at some point you will be investigated’ (to) make it normalized That will help ensure transparency and hopefully elicit support from coworkers.

“We all have to own our behaviors – if you own, it you might get in trouble, if you cover it up - you’ll get in a lot of trouble.”

The point of all of this research of course, is not to broad-brush everyone as a potential victim of trauma or even a mental health case, but to recognize the signs before it’s too late, according to Ricciardelli.

“People not recognizing when their health may be compromised – (with) a gradual onset and (then it) keeps getting worse because we wait. It becomes harder to get the help we need. If we don’t recognize it, how do we act?”

Most importantly, what are corrections leaders in a position to do about all of it?

More training is an obvious first choice, along with the other ideas of team building exercises to promote more interconnectedness and reduce interpersonal conflicts.

Regular mental health appointments should also be encouraged – off-site to maintain confidentiality as well as being non-mandatory, to ensure more honesty.

Making broad cultural changes in an institutional setting, Ricciardelli says, is kind of like turning around a cruise ship – if done too quickly, there runs the risk of damaging the structure, but more effective changes come over time with gradual shifts in policies.

“If psychology were like gravity - it might work every time, but not every solution works for every person.”

The first place to start is with self-care, Ricciardelli emphasized, listing the “ABCs” of self-care – Assess where one is doing well and what to focus on; Build on existing activities, skills and interests; and commit to sustainable self-care.

“Don’t make it an unachievable goal.”

(At TJJD, employees needing assistance with mental wellness may contact the agency’s wellness counselors at .)