Correctional Officers Need Mental Health Training

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Correctional Officers Need Mental Health Training

Jim Windell


            “By default, we have become the largest treatment facility in the country. And we're a jail,” says Tim Belavich, the director of mental health for the Los Angeles County jail system. “I would say a jail facility is not the appropriate place to treat someone's mental illness.”

            That may be true, but the fact is that people with mental illnesses are overrepresented in the U.S. jail and prison population. It is well established that incarceration for this population poses physical and mental health risks including greater likelihood of victimization and suicide compared to the general prison population.

           “Local jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health institutions," says Elizabeth Hancq, director of research at the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to treatment for people with severe mental illness. “It's really a humanitarian crisis that if you suffer from a severe mental illness in this country, you almost need to commit a crime in order to get into the system.”

           Some studies have shown that almost one-third of people with a mental illness get into the treatment systems through an encounter with a police officer. However, the lack of available treatment beds nationally means more people with a mental illness are stuck in jails until one becomes available – although that could take a painfully long time.

           It's hard to quantify just how big the problem really is because no organization or agency keeps close nationwide tabs on the number of inmates in county and city jails who have a mental health problem or their average length of stay. What we do know though is that guards and correctional officers serve as first responders, usually working around the clock in three shifts.

           According to Pamela Valera, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at Rutgers School of Public Health, “Correctional officers are often the initial point of contact for individuals experiencing mental health distress, psychosis, and substance abuse within criminal justice settings.” But despite this critical role, correctional officers typically receive minimal mental health training.

           Valera, aware of this need for correctional officers to be trained in mental health observed that crisis intervention teams – initially designed for police officers to manage mental health crises in the community – have been adapted for correctional settings, yet evidence of their effectiveness remains limited and yields mixed results.

           Valera led a team to train correctional officers in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) for adults. MHFA is a 7.5-hour national education program from the National Council of Mental Wellbeing. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing is a membership organization that drives policy and social change on behalf of more than 3,400 mental health and substance use treatment organizations and the more than 10 million children, adults and families they serve. We advocate for policies to ensure equitable access to high-quality services. MHFA, it was thought by the researchers may help provide correctional officers with the necessary skills to effectively identify signs and symptoms of mental distress and advocate for incarcerated individuals facing mental health crises.

           Led by Dr. Valera, the researchers collaborated with the National Council of Mental Wellbeing to develop the pilot study, which was recently published in Psychological Services, to evaluate officers’ mental health knowledge and attitudes before and after undergoing the remote training.

           Using a mixed-methods approach, researchers recruited 30 correctional officers who worked at a northeastern maximum security state prison facility for a MHFA intervention study. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the training was conducted remotely via Zoom. Of these participants, 27 completed the study encompassing pre- and post-surveys alongside a follow-up assessment – and nine correctional officers engaged in a focus group session.

           The pre and post-test findings suggest MHFA training improved participants’ ability to distinguish between manifestations of mental health, substance use and behavioral challenges, researchers said. They emphasized the positive impact of MHFA training on correctional officers’ attitudes toward referring incarcerated individuals to mental health professionals.

           In the 12 weeks following the intervention, participants self-reported referring incarcerated individuals experiencing signs of mental distress. However, there is a need to enhance the mental health referral process for incarcerated individuals when correctional officers provide MHFA, according to the researchers.

           Reflecting on their experience with remote MHFA training, one correctional officer noted, “We should be receiving far more mental health training. We truly need it because our current training doesn’t cover this aspect. I believe everyone should have access to this course. It allowed me to become more introspective, identify what I’ve been overlooking, and address it. More guidance on effective communication with incarcerated people would be beneficial.”

           Valera and her team emphasized the importance of expanding the scope of MHFA training to include various settings, such as county jails and detention facilities. Valera said future MHFA interventions must improve mental wellness in correctional settings.

           While the study is the first of its kind to implement Mental Health First Aid in a correctional setting, Dr. Valera said that more is needed. “Mental Health First Aid will need to be tailored specifically for correctional professionals to equip them with the ability to identify signs and symptoms of mental health challenges among those incarcerated in either a jail, prison or detention setting to appropriately refer individuals to immediate justice-involved services.”

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Valera, P., Malarkey, S., Owens, M., Sinangil, N., Bhakta, S., & Chung, T. (2024). Remote mental health first aid training for correctional officers: A pilot study. Psychological Services. Advance online publication.


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