High stress levels and burnout
A fascinating, if somewhat harrowing, article by Joanna Binley in the latest edition of the Prison Service Journal (hosted by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies), examines the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder in ex-prison officers. The study is based on interviews with 12 ex-prison officers. Ms Binley starts by laying out the pressures and risks of being a prison officer:
“Prison officers are exposed to illicit substances, experience more psychosomatic health issues, and are at a heightened risk of assault, than most other occupations, with prisoner-on-staff assaults steadily rising in recent years. Also, prison officers have higher rates of mental health disorders than many other occupations.”
She goes on to describe how the prison service culture makes it difficult for officers to talk about their mental health:
“emotions such as fear, sadness, and anxiety as unacceptable. Prison staff report that colleagues or managers would view them as weak if they broke these rules and spoke truthfully about their mental health.”
When reflecting on their time as a serving officer, interviewees found support around potentially traumatising events (PTEs) was inconsistent nationally across prisons, even for basic forms of support, such as debriefs after major incidents. Importantly, prison officers involved in a critical debrief have lower levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms than those who are not. Debriefs also function as encouragement for officers to consider and discuss their emotions, potentially reducing stigma surrounding struggling after a PTE.
The research found that support for individuals who had already developed PTSD from their work varied between managers. Interviewees felt most managers did not understand how to deal with traumatic events and staff suffering from PTSD. Some managers explicitly dismissed their employees’ concerns.
“One of the governors rang me… he said ‘you mentioned that there’s a lack of support from senior management? That’s not my job’. I said ‘really? I’ve been assaulted in your prison, I’ve done 30 years of service, I’ve done good work, and it’s not your job?”
Barriers to treatment
The research identified multiple barriers preventing officers from accessing treatment. Being
expected to work soon after or just before their psychotherapy session was a logistical and
emotional barrier for staff, which discouraged them from engaging.
“They’d say ‘oh when’s your appointment’ and you say ‘11’ and they’d say ‘well come in for the morning then and then leave’… I’d say ‘well no because I’m not going there in my uniform’…”
Managers did not appear to consider that psychotherapy can be emotionally draining and leave individuals feeling vulnerable.
Most interviewees were not offered formal psychotherapy through their workplace. Others
sought alternative free treatment through the NHS, such as via Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, which typically had long waiting times. Some officers ended up paying for private treatment but most simply went without proper support.
The importance of diagnosis
The research found that most interviewees had difficulty in recognising they had PTSD. Many did not understand what they were experiencing, attributing it to how prison work had ‘changed them’. Once they sought help from a medical professional, they were
diagnosed with PTSD.
“I was surprised, I never thought of PTSD… I just thought that was me and how I’d become.”
Most interviewees described the prison officer culture of “just carrying on” without discussing how they felt. Fear, anxiety, and sadness, were seen as unacceptable as they would have been considered signs of (unacceptable) weakness to other staff.
Staff used dark humour to deal with the emotions work caused. It was not appropriate to feel sadness or fear about their work, but officers and ex-officers were expected to joke about it.
“You don’t talk much, but you laugh about stuff, deep down I think we all felt the same, we all felt scared and depressed…but we didn’t want to show it… Nobody ever talked about how they felt.”
Interviewees discussed the profound and long-lasting impact of PTSD on their lives and relationships including thoughts about suicide. Almost all the interviewees said they knew officers or ex-officers who had committed suicide, which they felt could very probably be attributed to PTSD.
Ms Binley suggests that PTSD among prison officers:
“could be particularly longlasting due to the way in which it may develop: often, the interviewees had not experienced one trauma, but had experienced multiple PTEs over prolonged periods of time, amidst an environment with a constant threat of victimisation.”
It is clear that HMPPS needs to do a much better job in supporting prison officers in their work in which witnessing traumatic events is inevitable.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here