Mental Health – Considering the Correctional Professional

There are many great resources on mental health topics that apply to some challenges that correctional professionals may face. There are a few terms that do need some specific considerations when applied to the correctional professional. Correctional professionals are highly trained in a specialized environment that develops strong, vital skills in the work place that require some translation or special consideration when seeking support. More specifically the terms “anxiety” and “hyper vigilance” should be put into perspective.

  • Well trained officers are highly skilled in restricting their physical and emotional responses to conversations and events. One of the most important tools in the safety and success of an officer is minimizing their visual impact of an incident. An officer’s greatest asset at work can be their worst enemy when it comes to home and family relationships.
  • At work an officer is functionally numb. Emotional numbing is vital for an officer to maintain professionalism and safety when dealing with challenging circumstances in the prison environment. Life outside of work asks the officer to go against everything they are trained to do. This is beyond the “leave your work at work” philosophy. Specialized professions often have character shaping elements that become a part of an individual’s manner of being. Teachers are often described as highly organized people, engineers as concrete thinkers and lawyers as argumentative. Just as other professionals with specialized training, correctional professionals can be presented with “occupational hazards” that are challenging in non-work arenas.
  • Specialized skills that are important for the correctional professional can make it difficult to understand when an officer is in need of help. It is challenging to discern when a behavior is a minor “occupational hazard” and when the behavior has become problematic or a sign of distress.
  • Anxiety or hyper vigilance in an officer can be challenging to identify. For example, every officer is highly trained in being aware of all entry points to a room or to move about an open space in such a way that they are able to effectively scan the area for safety. Officers are constantly scanning, this is an occupational hazard which may by an annoyance to loved ones, but is not necessarily problematic. An officer’s need to sit in a specific location at a restaurant can simply be a quirk of working in corrections.
  • The behavior of “scanning” may have become a sign of anxiety or hyper vigilance if there has been a marked increase of being vigilant to the point of always feeling at risk. If a general sense of paranoia is present it is time to seek help.
  • An officer may have experienced their heart begin to race or feeling “ready to respond” when a call for “assistance in aisle 3” in the supermarket comes over the intercom or they hear a heightened tone or volume of a voice in a room or over a radio that mimics a “stress call” at work. Again, specially trained professionals have many occupational hazards.
  • This scenario can be an indication of a need for support if the correctional professional is unable to quickly calm themselves or experience a dramatic change in mood or a sustained state of hyper-arousal. Hyper-arousal is identified as the following symptoms: increases in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure; racing thoughts, physical tension, difficulty sleeping, anxiety fear, irritability or anger. Behaviors, such as this, that have presented in a more pronounced way in an officer can be an element of anxiety, hyper vigilance or trauma reactive behavior.