A man is seated at a desk. He is smiling at the camera.

Wasantha Jayawardene, assistant professor of public health, led the SIU Carbondale research team studying “Work Stress and Psychoactive Use among Correctional Officers in the USA.”  (Photo by Russell Bailey)

June 26, 2024

SIU researchers find prison guards suffer PTSD and other issues but get little help

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Chronic high stress, long and difficult shifts and elevated anxiety – these constant components of correctional officers’ jobs result in higher rates of PTSD than military veterans’, suicide rates twice as high as all other professions combined and increased risk of substance use among a population that dies young, researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale have discovered.

“Very little research has been done on this topic,” said Wasantha Jayawardene, assistant professor of public health, who led the study “Work Stress and Psychoactive Use among Correctional Officers in the USA,” recently published in the journal Psychoactives.

“Prison guards witness traumatic events among inmates, and it takes a toll on their mental health and well-being,” he said. “They complain about the lack of support, the extent of the expectations of administration and other issues.”

Jayawardene recommended prison reform should address not only the needs of inmates but also of officers.

Multiple issues at work

The research team analyzed data from interviews conducted in 2017-18 with 1,083 prison guards in Massachusetts and Texas, along with random samples from other prisons. Nearly 47% of the officers were employed at maximum-security facilities.

“We tried to focus on work-related stress and substance use, safety concerns, threats of violence on a daily basis, concerns over their safety, overcrowding, understanding the number of inmates they have to handle and the responsibilities they have,” Jayawardene said.

About 34% of the officers in the study reported suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder compared to 14% of military veterans and 7% of the general public. The average life expectancy of a correctional officer in the U.S. is 59 years compared to the general population average of 75 years, and officers have a 40% higher suicide rate than the rest of working age population, according to the most recent data available. Workers’ compensation claims have increased eight-fold in the last decade or so.

Poor health, high job turnover rates and other negative outcomes, including higher rates of alcoholism and divorce, were also disclosed, he said. As guards deal with administrative and legal pressures and the many complexities of their jobs, the fear of making mistakes and mandatory overtime, they struggle with work/life balance and experience social and emotional issues and cardiovascular problems.

Using substances to cope

Many officers handle the stress through prescription medicines, alcohol, overuse of sleeping pills, marijuana or illegal drugs such as fentanyl and heroin. Jayawardene said his team concluded that work stress drives psychoactive substance use among officers, with 70.8% using alcohol and 17.2% using sedatives in the last month.

“A major issue regarding correctional officers is the lack of assistance they have for stress management and lack of options available for developing healthy coping mechanisms, compared to care-seeking behaviors among other populations,” Jayawardene said. “More than 52% said they would not ask for help from their employers in managing their stress, and nearly 33% wouldn’t ask for assistance with substance use issues.”

He proposed developing interventions specifically tailored to officers’ needs and preferred treatment venues.

Just the beginning

Jayawardene, who recently won the 2024 SIU College of Health and Human Sciences Early Career Scholar Excellence Award, said that while the study was completed using a very large sample, he and his colleagues want to expand their research to get an even more comprehensive view of what is happening with correctional officers across the country and work to bring about solutions.

For instance, he said that Illinois is likely to reflect similar trends to what the study showed, although no equivalent data is currently available for the state.

“We need to expand our research to a national basis and be able to collect data in a confidential and comfortable setting to ensure we get an accurate picture of the stresses and other pressures the correctional officers are experiencing and of the drug and substance use,” Jayawardene said.

“After we collect accurate data on a large-scale basis, we can create effective stress management, relief and intervention plans to help officers. This can include everything from apps with helpful information to online yoga to specialized treatments customized for the needs of the guards. We want to help them manage their stress and pressures so they can avoid using or abusing substances or harming themselves in other ways.”

Jayawardene’s research team includes include Justin McDaniel, associate professor of public health in the School of Human Sciences, who holds joint appointments in the neurology department and the population science and policy department at the SIU School of Medicine; Chesmi Kumbalatara, a doctoral student in population health from Sri Lanka, and Alsten Jones, a student in the SIU School of Medicine from Springfield, Illinois.

(Note to editors: Assistant Professor Wasantha Jayawardene’s name is pronounced Wah-sun-tha Jah-ya-war-da-na.)