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Staff Psychologists are a Lifeline at a Difficult Time

September 29, 2021

By Rachel Friederich

Communications Office

Two DOC staff members look at the computer screen as one types and the other points at the screen.

Correctional Officers work together at a computer. (Department of Corrections Photo)

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INFOGRAPHIC: Suicide Prevention

It’s a widely-known fact that correctional officers face risks for serious injury or illness when they report to work each day. Correctional officers across the country are trained for prevention of these scenarios as part of their onboarding process. But there’s another dark, but very real, risk correctional officers face in which prevention measures aren’t always universally applied or available.

The US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC) published a paper (pdf) on the prevalence of correctional officer suicide. Though data is limited, the NIC gathered findings from a few different studies. A 1997 study by researchers Steven J. Stack and Olga Tsoudis found the rate of suicide between correctional officers is 39% higher than the rest of the working-age population. A 2009 study by the New Jersey Police Suicide Task force suggested rates of suicide among correctional officers was twice as high as police officers.

One of the reasons this happens is because corrections officers generally face longer exposures to trauma compared to other law enforcement and first responder occupations, according to researchers. According to the NIC paper:

“Police officers and correctional officers are employed in dramatically different working conditions (Brower, 2013). “Those faced by correctional officers far exceed those experienced by police officers, whereas the dangers faced by law enforcement personnel are periodic, those faced by correctional officers are constant. In fact, correctional officers experience continued exposure to violent and dangerous offenders throughout the entirety of their work shifts. In addition, although police officers must interact with unpredictable citizens who may pose a risk of harm, they also have multiple opportunities to forge partnerships with prosocial community members who can help law enforcement maintain community harmony (Brower, 2013).”

Moreover, a 2017 paper by the National Institute of Justice (pdf) analyzed correctional officer safety and wellness suggested that even though correctional officers face higher incidences and often longer periods of potential dangers and stressors than police officers, which can lead to added risk of depression or self-harm the types of support at correctional agencies often vary and more often than not, are lacking. The American Psychological Association has a recognized discipline for police wellness. However, corrections doesn’t. In 2013, the American Correctional Association noted that out of 4,000 US prisons, fewer than 100 had a formal Employee Assistance Program.

Insights from a Correctional Psychologist

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a time when mental health advocates, prevention organizations, survivors, allies and community members unite to promote suicide prevention awareness.

Department of Corrections (DOC) Communications recently spoke to Rick Desmond, a staff psychologist from the DOC’s Southeast Region Business Office, which serves roughly 3,000 employees between the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, Washington State Penitentiary and the DOC’s Section 2 field offices that cover much of eastern Washington. Desmond has a master’s in clinical social work and has worked at DOC for 17 years.

As a correctional psychologist, Desmond has counseled both staff and incarcerated individuals in his career. He has also provided critical incident stress management services to employees who have been involved in incidents with significant stressors.

Desmond shared his insights about rewards and challenges staff psychologists face on the job and what suicide prevention measures and wellness supports the department has in place for staff.

Tell us about yourself. What made you go into psychology?

People who go into the field of mental health do so for interesting reasons. I didn’t start out in mental health, I found my passion for psychology in my senior year in college, but by that time it was too late to change my major. I received a bachelor’s degree in business administration and worked in the business world for 30 years.

But life has interesting transitions. The technology company I was working for at midlife downsized. It was an opportunity to change my career, so I went back to school and I loved it. I ended up getting a master’s degree in clinical social work in my 50s.

You have counseled both incarcerated individual patients and staff patients. What are some differences in treating them?

When you’re working with the incarcerated population, you can make a referral to a psychiatrist, and pass it on to a medical regimen. There are more protocols within our institutions that are followed up on because incarcerated patients are in our care. There are a lot more interventions one can take when someone is in our care.

A correctional officer is not under our care. We may not know everything about them, what they’re doing, how they live day-to day or what they’re up to. We don’t have as much control, compared to someone who is incarcerated. But we do have influence.

Do you find it’s hard for people to talk about their issues? Is it hard to get people to seek help?

In the field of corrections, it’s hard to create trust. We have our incarcerated population bias. We are taught from day one that those in our care may not be the most truthful. By the nature of what corrections staff are exposed to, building relationship among staff is an ongoing process to help them feel comfortable enough to trust and talk to us.

I don’t know how many times I’ve asked the question, “Are you thinking about harming yourself,” and I am surprised that it’s a conversationally appropriate question that can begin a helpful dialogue.

Our business as staff psychologists is a relational one. With each one-on-one interaction, you build a reputation among staff and you build it on your personal integrity and commitment.

It’s not uncommon for people who work in corrections, or other law enforcement profession to feel the need to “be tough.” People may have the fear of having a stigma of being made fun of or giving the impression that they can’t do their job if they need to speak to psychologist. How do you overcome that? How do you let people know it’s OK to seek help?

In my experience, it’s usually staff encouraging other staff to get help. If they see someone in need, they go to great lengths to facilitate healing. It’s hard for a troubled staff member not to get a referral for some kind of assistance.

I worry about the staff who won’t say anything. Suicidal ideation will almost always get resolved for folks who share. But for the folks who won’t share anything, it becomes alarming. Often people who complete suicide are the folks who are committed to not letting anyone know what they are going through.

A large part of a psychologist’s job is listening to people who are thinking about harming themselves and hearing about untold stories of trauma. That’s a lot of occupational related stress. Who takes care of the psychologists?

For me, there are relational friends I connect with and I have a solid spiritual base. It really is about that connection piece that helps to process stuff. You learn what things are getting to you as you connect to others.

I have a psychologist friend who, after a counseling session, goes into the bathroom and flushes the toilet. While she’s doing it, she pictures all the stress going out of her. She focuses on not being a receptacle, but to be a ‘pass-through.’ You focus on being a pass-through and being as helpful as you can in the moment to facilitate a healing process.

Another tool I’ve used with friends who are in a grief situation, is for them to write a letter to the person. A very honest letter saying what you appreciated about the person, how hurt you are by their demise, and what you wish a better outcome could have been. Then I recommend them to read the letter to another person they trust. Not to get advice, but so they can hear their feelings and their own voice to become aware of how they are doing. They can answer the question ‘Am I OK? Or am I shut down? Am I not quite normal or connected to myself?”

We can get disconnected from ourselves and not know it. We can be caught up in a moment and not know it. Reading letters are not for anyone else’s sake or to get feedback; it’s for processing my own experience to make sure I’m connected with myself in a healthy way. I recommend reading the letter to as many people as it takes to hear yourself getting to a healthier place.

Can you recall a time when you felt like you made a difference in someone’s life, or that you’ve intervened to save someone’s life?

One of the privileges of this position is that we get several opportunities to be helpful at key times in the life of staff. Over the years several staff have shared with me how they considered our interaction together life changing. I am still amazed of how the power of positive expression and connection can have such huge impacts.

What are some ways the DOC offers support to staff?

The DOC has staff psychologists who serve as a resource for managing personal and professional issues. Staff psychologists provide counseling services related to critical incident stress management, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and mediation, short-term counseling referrals for work-related, personal, emotional or psychological issues that might impact performance in the workplace. Staff psychologist can also provide referrals for addition issues.

In addition, Washington has an Employee Assistance Program available to all state employees. It’s free, confidential and provides services to employees to promote health, safety, and wellbeing.

Every DOC employee is required to take a suicide prevention course as part of their onboarding process and as well as part of annual in service training. They are all taught to recognize signs of suicidal ideation in incarcerated individuals, but what about in their peers? How do recognize those signs?

Our staff spend many hours together and frequently they know each other very well. The environment we work in helps facilitate unique connection with each other. Correctional staff are professional observers and listeners. When they use those skills on each other, staff can find themselves saying things they didn’t expect to or perhaps were not aware of what they were communicating. This gives an opportunity to help facilitate an intervention. I really appreciate the referrals provided by staff to help others!

What do find is the most rewarding part of this work?

It is a wonderful privilege to work with a special group of people that are striving to help the community. Although they don’t see themselves this way, they are really the heroes of our society. To be able to support the people who are the heroes of society, to help the people who are helping everyone else is incredibly satisfying. I’ve never had such a fulfilling and meaningful role. I love every day of interacting with our family.