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Researchers: Correctional Officers Suffer Distress, Risk Suicide

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A team of Northeastern University researchers headed by Natasha A. Frost is conducting the first long-term study of occupational stress, violence exposures, and psychological distress for a cohort of correctional officers. The work being done by Frost and other researchers looking at correctional-officer stress – and solutions to that stress -- were discussed during a panel at the 2023 NIJ National Research Conference.

The Northeastern University team first began to look at correctional officer well-being in response to a spike in suicides between 2010 and 2015, by officers working within the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Over that period, the average suicide rate for MADOC corrections officers over this period was approximately 105 per 100,000 — at least seven times higher than the national suicide rate (14 per 100,000), and almost 12 times higher than the suicide rate for the state of Massachusetts (nine per 100,000).

The resulting study, which appeared in in Corrections Today in 2020 found that about 25% of correctional officers self-reported symptoms consistent with at least one psychological distress outcome. Five percent of all Massachusetts correctional officers exhibited signs of suicidality, 20% had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 25% had symptoms of anger and anxiety.1 Officers who knew a suicide victim also had a significantly higher likelihood of experiencing distress, including suicidality.

The study found that departmental discipline, job satisfaction, and strain-based work-family conflict were all significant correlates of compromised mental health among corrections officers. Frost recommended that corrections agencies should proactively address officer health and wellness, provide critical incident aftercare, attend to organizational and occupational stressors, destigmatize mental health conditions, and address aspects of correctional culture that stigmatize help-seeking.

The current, longitudinal study seeks to identify the causes and risks among correctional officers for clinically elevated symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideation. These factors can all be precursors to suicide.

Officers are concerned that addressing their mental health issues would have negative repercussions at work, said Frost, who also noted the role of a “hypermasculine” work culture and the societal stigmatization of mental health issues.


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