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Suicide among COs: It's time for an open discussion

Discussion of suicide within the profession was a taboo topic because corrections employees were not supposed to appear emotionally vulnerable or fragile


By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

During my undergraduate education and on-the-job training as a young corrections officer starting in 1989, I was exposed to a plethora of research that focused on the various causes of and responses to prisoner suicides. Yet throughout my 20-year career in corrections, very little (if any) attention was paid to the issue of correctional officer suicides. Discussion of suicide within the profession was a taboo topic because corrections employees were not supposed to appear emotionally vulnerable or fragile. After all, emotional vulnerability often equates to emotional instability, which is perceived to be a weakness within the profession.

There has been much written concerning suicide among law enforcement officers, but very little about suicide among correctional officers. As a university professor, I teach law enforcement and corrections courses. In my law enforcement courses, we go into great depth about the risks of stress, burnout, depression, and suicide rates among police officers, but in my corrections courses the topic is rarely, if ever, discussed.

There has been much written concerning suicide among law enforcement officers, but very little about suicide among correctional officers. (Photo/American Military University)
There has been much written concerning suicide among law enforcement officers, but very little about suicide among correctional officers. (Photo/American Military University)

Existing Research on Suicide in Corrections

Research studies have found high suicide rates in the corrections field. For example, a 2009 New Jersey State Police Task Force Study (PDF) found that corrections officers have a suicide rate that is twice as high as the rate of police officers and the general population.

A 2013 U.S. Department of Justice’s Programs Diagnostic Center Study (PDF) found corrections officers:

  • Have a much higher rate of suicide than those in other occupations
  • Experience some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during their careers
  • On average, will not live to see their 59th birthday

In one of the few studies specifically addressing correctional officer suicide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries indicated that 38 percent of the intentional fatalities were suicides by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, but the actual percentage is largely unknown because the BLS only reports suicides that occur in the workplace. Suicides that occur at home or elsewhere are classified as non-occupational and are not part of the BLS data.

Therefore, more research is needed to develop a better understanding of the prevalence and causes of suicide among corrections officers.

Enhance and Equip EAPs

It is imperative that corrections professionals spearhead a discussion about suicide and ensure there are resources to provide assistance to officers who need it. The good news is that many agencies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). However, EAPs must be tweaked to provide the necessary support to address suicide.

EAPs must be administered by specialized professionals who:

  • Have advanced knowledge of the corrections field
  • Are familiar with the agency and its policies and procedures
  • Understand the current issues that may have an adverse influence on corrections officers and their families

Furthermore, the EAP programs must be easily accessible to corrections officers and equipped to address a wide range of mental health and substance-abuse issues, which are sadly endemic in the profession.

Establish Critical Incident Response Teams

In addition to robust EAPs, agencies must set up a critical incident response team, to include a trauma psychologist, and provide necessary support to officers who have been exposed to traumatic incidents. Members of the critical incident response team should be tasked with evaluating corrections officers following critical events and following up with them in the days, weeks, and months after the incident.

As clinical assessments are necessary for corrections officers and their families in such circumstances, corrections administrators should maintain a referral network of clinical providers who offer confidential critical incident stress management services.

Engage Family Members

Lastly, the organization should also offer in-service and family trainings that address stress and wellness issues. Many family members and loved ones can benefit from counseling after a traumatic event. Families often need assistance and training so they can learn how to best support their affected family members and how to identify symptoms and early warning signs of suicide.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is a 28-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 14 years while also serving as an author, editor and subject matter expert. To contact the author, please send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu.

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