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Understanding the Impacts of Corrections Officer Suicide

Date Published
April 30, 2020

Between 2010 and 2015, at least 20 corrections officers working for the Massachusetts Department of Correction (MADOC) died by suicide. The average suicide rate for MADOC corrections officers over this period was approximately 105 per 100,000 –a rate that is 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). Some counties across Massachusetts also reported the loss of multiple officers to suicide over the same period, suggesting the phenomenon in state prisons was being mirrored in county correctional facilities. Even in the context of rising suicide rates across the country, and recognizing the elevated risk for suicide in the protective service occupations, the number of suicides among corrections officers in Massachusetts has been unnerving.

Our research team from Northeastern University initially learned of a growing suicide incidence through interviews we were conducting with officers and sergeants who were taking part in an occupational stress study. During the interviews, a number of officers shared their concern about the recent suicides of colleagues, with several noting they themselves were only participating in the stress study out of concern about those suicides. We had to stop interviewing at one of the correctional facilities temporarily when news reached us that another officer who worked there had just died by suicide. Around the same time, a local Fox news program ran several stories about the increases in officer suicide at the MADOC, featuring some of the families of officers who died.

Suicide Prevention

As university researchers already working with a state corrections department motivated to address the suicides that they too perceived as a growing problem, we asked the MADOC for more information. We thought we might see an identifiable pattern among the data they provided. We were surprised when there wasn't anything obvious. The officers who had died between 2010 and 2015 included both men and women, roughly proportional to their representation in the workforce (which is male dominated). They ranged in age from 23 to 62, and had careers in corrections as short as six months and as long as 32 years. Fewer than half had military backgrounds. Among the ranks of those who died by suicide were officers, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains. Several had served as a deputy superintendent or higher. Most of the 16 prisons across the state had experienced at least one officer suicide, with a handful experiencing multiple suicides. In several years, there had been four to five suicides. The only outwardly obvious traits these officers had in common was that they all were working at the time, or had worked, for the MADOC, and they had all died by suicide.

In 2016, my colleague Carlos Monteiro and I were awarded a federal grant from the National Institute of Justice to work with the MADOC in conducting an expansive mixed methods study of suicide in corrections. We articulated five primary goals for this work:

  1. Develop a nuanced understanding of the context within which officer suicide has occurred;
  2. Comprehensively assess the many impacts of correctional officer suicide on families, friends, and colleagues;
  3. Better understand the impact of officer suicides on the institutional environment;
  4. Identify correlates of (and risk factors for) anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation; and
  5. Understand how the structure, function, and composition of officers' social networks might be related to suicide ideation, as well as to indicators of well-being.

Stigma and Impact

As a person who lost an immediate family member to suicide, and who understands that the loss of a loved one to suicide is impossible to ever fully recover from, it was extremely important to me personally that we represent the officers who had died by suicide as more than simply statistics in a federally funded research study. The officers who had died were individuals with families and friends who loved them and who would have done whatever necessary to prevent the suicide, could they have done so. Given the stigma still associated with suicide, we felt it was particularly important to describe the officers' lives as comprehensively as possible, so that we could describe the way that they had lived, rather than focus exclusively on the way that they had died.

We also recognized that, for those left behind, a suicide loss is different from any other type of death, and that it is exceedingly difficult to describe the impacts to anyone who has not been through it. Nonetheless, we wanted to try to convey the stories of these officers with an authenticity that can be relayed only through the words of those who had known the deceased person most intimately.

To give those who knew these officers best the opportunity to tell the story of their loved one, we set out to find and interview the family members and close friends of the 20 officers who had died by suicide in the period we were studying. We used the publicly available obituaries of the officers and tried to contact each of the people named as survivors. We contacted parents, siblings, spouses, adult children, and extended family. We tried to find close friends who had posted condolences on publicly available websites. Northeastern University's institutional review board, which ensures the protection of human subjects during research experiments, required that we attempt to contact each individual at most twice, via a letter posted to the person's last known address, and that we not proceed further until we received a return communication, in writing, expressing affirmative interest in interviewing with the research team.

Given these restrictions, we were worried that few would write back, and that the reach of our case studies might be limited to our reviews of personnel files and other documentation provided by the department.

In fact, the response to our outreach to the families has been overwhelming. As of October 2019, we had heard from the families and friends of 17 of the 20 officers. We are deeply grateful for their willingness to speak with us because although our case studies involved more than the family and friend interviews, we felt we could fully do justice to the lives of those officers only if we also learned about them from their immediate family and friends. We understood when, for some families, participation was simply too difficult and the experience still too painful to recount. We are grateful to them as well, for their correspondence.

All of our interviews were conducted in person, often in the homes of the officer's family members, and we opened every interview by asking for a favorite memory of the officer. This allowed the families to share their positive experiences of their loved one first. Although they were not asked to do so, most of the families brought photos, several sent or showed us videos, and some shared things their loved one had written. All of the families gave us rich descriptions of the officers' lives. The love that these families and friends had for the officers was abundantly evident, and the depth of their loss was palpable. We were humbled by their willingness to share the good memories and to talk to strangers about what had often been the most devastating event of their lives. We left the interviews feeling as though we had come to know these officers personally, even if only briefly. Though I never had the opportunity to meet any of the officers, I can bring their likeness to mind at the sight of their names.

Sadly, as we interviewed officers currently working for the department for the second phase of the research, we learned of more officers who had died by suicide during the period 2010-2015, and so we are still working on these case studies. Although we cannot yet say anything definitive, we can say with a relatively high degree of confidence that there were at least three distinct types of cases, and we can share some preliminary emerging themes common to all three types.

To be clear, the suicide was shocking and devastating to every family we spent time with. However, with respect to some of the officers who died by suicide, the family explained that there had been a relatively lengthy history of anxiety, depression, or both. In several of the cases, there were previous suicide attempts – in some cases, the attempts dated back to adolescence. The family was aware that the officer was struggling, and family members were actively doing everything they could to intervene. Even in these families, the suicide event was unpredicted and unpredictable.

Preventing the Unexpected

In a related set of cases, there was not a known history of mental health struggles, but the officers were known to be experiencing particularly acute personal struggles at the time that they died. These officers tended to have been perceived as emotionally and behaviorally stable until they had confronted a particularly significant, recent life challenge. Although these challenges were in some instances very clearly work-related, with several officers facing discipline or demotion, more often they were personal. For almost all of the officers, personal and occupational struggles were inextricable.

Several of the officers were in the midst of difficult divorces and child custody disputes. Quite a few were battling growing problems with substance use. Some were fighting chronic pain from injuries, often sustained at work. Several were fighting with the department to have the lingering effects of those workplace injuries recognized. In these cases, which were about equal to the number with known mental health histories, there were clear precipitating events. These officers were facing an ongoing existential crisis, and their families were concerned, but typically not about the potential for suicide. Frequently, these were officers who had recently retired or were hoping to retire soon.

Then there were the handful of cases where there quite literally seemed to have been no signs of any preexisting struggle that family or friends could identify. These suicides seemed to the family to come out of nowhere, and were possibly triggered by a single event. We describe these as impulsive suicides — these officers seem to have simply lost perspective in a moment, making a snap decision with devastating and lasting consequences. In these cases, there was a triggering event, but none of the precursors. These officers tended to be among the youngest officers, and their deaths are among the most difficult to comprehend.

As may already be clear, it is difficult to generalize about these cases. As we came to "know" these officers through our extensive case study methodology, we realized that it would be exceedingly difficult to describe them in collective terms without recognizing more differences than commonalities. As we use what we have learned from families and friends to write about the officers, most likely in a book that we plan to write over the coming year, we will do our best to fulfill our commitment of telling the stories of the officers' lives and not just their deaths.

Researching Workplace Wellness

In June 2018, we launched the second phase of this research, which involves one-on-one interviews with officers of all ranks who are currently working at the MADOC. The interview is conducted at their workplace, during their shift, in a private room with one of our interviewers. We have now conducted these intensive interviews with a random sample of more than 300 officers at all of the facilities across the MADOC. We have conducted almost 100 additional interviews with officers who volunteered to speak with us, some of whom had known at least one of the officers who had died. We had just a handful of interviews left to complete as of October 2019.

As part of these interviews, we ask the officers questions about their own health and well-being. We also ask about their personal experiences with suicide including whether (and how well) they knew any of the officers who have died by suicide. We administer a series of validated instruments to assess their self-reported levels of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal ideation. We ask questions about their sleep patterns and their alcohol use, about their stress levels, and about the amount of conflict in their work and family lives. We ask them what they think the department should be doing about suicide.

Perhaps the most innovative part of our second-phase work is our egocentric social network analysis — a tool used to understand the structure and function of an individual's network ties. We open the interview with a series of questions about the people that officer knows, trusts, or can rely on for different types of needs. Then we ask some questions about the people named, including how well each of those people knows each other. We hope this aspect of our study will help further our understanding of the size, structure, and density of officers' social networks, and of the protective (or isolating) functions that those social networks can serve. We worry that some officers' social networks become more constrained, and their social worlds more isolated, as they become more embedded in the work of corrections. We are particularly concerned about the effects that shiftwork, and working certain shifts, can have on officers' personal and professional lives. We anticipate that the social network analysis will only become more impactful as we begin to develop a longitudinal study following officers' well-being over time (from the academy onward).

Promoting Mental Wellness

As we have traveled around the country, describing our research and sharing what we are learning, I am struck by just how often I am approached by an officer or administrator from a department of corrections in another state who wants to share that they too have recently lost a disproportionate (and often shocking) number of colleagues to suicide. We have learned over these past three years that what we thought might be an anomaly is probably not an anomaly at all.

We are only now beginning the work of analyzing the extensive data we have collected over these past three years. In 2020, we look forward to sharing the results of this research with the families who have lost a loved one, and with the correctional and broader law enforcement communities. Although we believe that it is almost impossible to predict suicide, and therefore it has proven exceedingly difficult to prevent, we hope to use what we find to develop a better understanding of some of the risk factors for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal ideation that can serve as precursors to suicide.

Like the families who agreed to meet with us to share some memories and to describe the devastating impact of the loss of their husband, wife, son, daughter, father, brother, sister, uncle or best friend, we hope that this work will eventually mean that the family of another officer might never have to know the enduring pain of suicide.

Date Published: April 30, 2020