Your mental health matters: How to have a healthy, sustainable career in corrections

It requires a conscious effort to build emotional resiliency and develop positive coping mechanisms

By Jenna Curren, MS

Personal mental health is extremely important to a healthy, sustainable career within corrections. Working in corrections, regardless of your position, is typically accompanied by a negative and, at times, hostile environment. As a correctional professional, you see, hear and respond to situations that can cause post-traumatic stress in numerous ways. Most of the time, it can be difficult to acknowledge the stress because after an incident you are expected to complete your paperwork, resume your post and continue with normal operations – you are expected to “do your job.”

Prison is a well-oiled machine that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is time for all Department of Corrections to stop assuming their employees operate the same way. Trauma is real and it impacts all of us differently. Trauma shows its face in three different forms: primary, secondary and vicarious.

In this Aug. 17, 2011, file photo, concertina wire and a guard tower are seen at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
In this Aug. 17, 2011, file photo, concertina wire and a guard tower are seen at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Primary trauma

Primary trauma is when you personally experience an event. For example, being assaulted, witnessing violence or watching someone commit suicide are all forms of primary trauma.

You experience primary trauma largely with your five senses (hear, see, smell, touch, taste). Primary trauma can be the most difficult type of trauma you can experience, which is why its effects last longer.

Secondary trauma

Secondary trauma happens as a result of hearing of or learning about a disturbing event. For example, reading an offender’s master file and the details from the pre-sentence investigation or the announcement of a fellow officer’s death are forms of secondary trauma.

Vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma is being exposed to other people’s traumas, which in turn causes you to change your view on humanity and the world. For example, school shootings and terrorist attacks vicariously affect all of us. 

Working in corrections, you are exposed to all three types of traumas on a daily basis. This exposure can raise your stress levels, which can have a profound impact on your ability to lead a healthy life.

So, you might ask, is there a positive way to respond to trauma and reduce your stress? The answer is yes, but it requires a conscious effort to build the resiliency and positive coping mechanisms required to have a sustainable career in corrections. 

How to protect your mental health

During pre-service, as well as in-service annual training, staff members need up-to-date training on personal mental health. These trainings must include:

  • Positive and healthy ways to de-stress;
  • Current statistics on health issues for correctional professionals;
  • How to recognize when a fellow staff member is at his/her breaking point;
  • Acknowledgement that it is acceptable to discuss feelings of despair.

As a correctional professional, you deserve to be educated and trained on how to handle traumatic events, build resiliency and use proactive coping mechanisms.

Your employer expects you to work your assigned shift, work holidays and weekends, cover staffing shortages, respond to incidents, complete your paperwork in a timely fashion, resume your post after an incident, and continue to run normal operations; they expect you to “do your job” incident after incident. Now, it is time for you to raise your expectations of them and demand more training on mental health, stress and trauma. You cannot continue to “do your job” if you are mentally unfit to do so.

Every correctional facility needs to implement initiatives that are designed specifically to address the health and wellness of their employees. Having a department that promotes a healthy, positive lifestyle also promotes a sustainable career in corrections.

About the author
Jenna Curren, MS, is an assistant professor in law and justice policy studies at Mitchell College in New London, CT. As a member of the CJ advisory board at Mitchell College, Jenna actively works with members of the community to integrate current students into internships and prospective law enforcement careers. Prior to working in academics, Jenna was a lieutenant for the CT Department of Correction where she supervised men, women, youth and mental health offenders. A C.E.R.T and honor guard member, as well as a training officer, Jenna has 10 years of experience in the criminal justice and human services fields.

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