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Corrections officers show increased openness to counseling, thanks to COVID

A Connecticut employee assistance program, modeled after one in Massachusetts, is helping correctional officers cope with the stress of their jobs and finding increased success thanks to changes due to the COVID pandemic.

Dianne Moynihan, a former EAP director in Massachusetts, leads the clinically-guided, peer-led, mentoring-based counseling program which got its start last September and, in its first year, has had more than 10,000 contacts with employees who have reached out for help.

The program works because it uses trained peers to connect with COs, people who have worked the job and understand its unique strains, Moynihan, the program’s behavioral health clinical director, said. It is available to all employees, not just COs, as well as to their family members, and counselors are available 24 hours a day and will meet employees wherever they’d like - at work, in a coffee shop, even at home.

“We’re connecting,” Moynihan said about the program’s success. “If that many people reach out and connect with us, it speaks right there to the credibility and need.”

Correctional officers, she said, “have among the highest rates of divorce, addictions, and mental health problems and the highest rates of suicide...higher than other first responders.”

Despite working in high stress environments where they face potential physical harm, long hours without access to sunlight, and significant overtime, correctional officers are often reluctant to seek support and assistance, or be seen as needing help.

“This is a very machismo, very tough environment, where you put that armor on you,” said Moynihan.

It’s also an environment where it hasn’t been OK to not be OK, but COVID is changing that.

“COVID has opened the dialogue in a way we’ve never had before,” said Moynihan. “Because nobody’s OK, everybody’s scared, it doesn’t matter what job you do.”

The fact that more people, especially well-known names, are talking about their mental health challenges is also helping.

“Musicians and actors are outing themselves with their own mental health, talking about their own struggles,” Moynihan said. “That makes it ok for the rest of us regular people.”

More correctional officers are also accepting help due to the expansion of telehealth services which lets them connect with a counselor without having to meet with them in person, or let anyone else know what they are doing. If they want to, they can meet virtually from the privacy of the home bathroom, so even family members don’t know they are getting help.

Correctional officers don’t like to go face to face with therapists, Moynihan said, because they see it as embarrassing, or a sign of weakness. But, thanks to COVID, the ability to talk to someone virtually has become the norm.

“COVID, in my opinion, has changed the paradigm of asking for help with mental health,” said Moynihan. “Now nobody is offended by hearing someone they know and love say they’re not ok. They’re comfortable saying, ‘OK let’s get some help.’”

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