Prison employees experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a rate that is similar to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and higher than police officers, according to a study by researchers at Washington State University and the University of Alabama-Birmingham that was recently published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
The researchers sent surveys to each of the approximately 2,000 members of the union representing WA state prison workers. A total of 355 Washington State Department of Corrections staff, including guards, counselors, medical practitioners, and other staff, responded and participated in the study.
A total of 19 percent of the survey respondents met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis—a rate that is six times higher than that of the general public, according to the report.
In comparison, approximately 11-20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets, and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have experienced PTSD, according to the report.
“The violent and chaotic nature of prison work has been show to negatively impact prison employee physical health, mental health, sleep, personal life, and general wellness,” the researchers stated in their report. “[Prison employees] consistently face inconsistent and long work hours, challenging and confrontational workplace interactions, uncertain job responsibilities, violence, trauma, and threats to their personal safety. Yet despite these well-established problems, the prevalence, causes, and insulators of PTSD among prison employees have not been well studied.”
Although research on PTSD among correctional officers is still relatively rare, this study isn’t the first to look at the issue. A 2013 report from Desert Waters Correctional Outreach found that 31 percent of guards in correctional facilities suffer from PTSD. (The Desert Waters report looked specifically at guards, rather than all prison staff.)
The recent Washington State/University of Alabama report found that factors like exposure to critical incidents corresponded with higher PTSD diagnosis checklist scores. Events like “being seriously injured,” and “encountering an inmate recently sexually assaulted” strongly correlated with higher PTSD scores. Other PTSD-connected incidents included “receiving serious threats to self or loved ones,” and “encountering an inmate attempting suicide.”
Workers who reported being “often placed in unnecessary danger,” and being “often unclear about what is expected” of them in the course of their jobs, also had higher PTSD scores.
The findings line up with a a 2016 study, which revealed that police officers’ exposure to critical incidents was “statistically significantly correlated” with drinking and PTSD. Those officers that had experienced a higher number of critical incidents were more likely to report having symptoms of PTSD and consuming alcohol.
As with war vets, shame and stigma often deter corrections officers and other law enforcement officers from seeking treatment for PTSD and other mental health needs.
For former Oregon Department of Corrections Sergeant Michael Van Patten, long-untreated PTSD—brought on by the trauma of witnessing and experiencing job-related violence—in combination and a macho correctional officer culture, led to a suicide attempt.
Van Patten and his son, who thwarted his father’s suicide attempt, have since recorded a video telling Michael’s story, and discussing the detrimental impacts of Michael’s internalized PTSD on his family. The Oregon DOC uses the video to educate staff about the importance of prioritizing their mental health care.
According to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the suicide rate for its members was 19.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2013.
In response to an alarming spate of suicides in their ranks, CCPOA together with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, launched a study to assess the mental health needs of the state’s correctional officers. The study, which is still in progress, includes a survey completed by 8,600 corrections and parole officers statewide. Once their analysis is complete, CCPOA and Berkeley researchers plan to explore various pilot programs and mental health interventions.