Corrections officer speaks out about high depression rate on the job

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LANSING, MI (WILX) - Correction officers have a 39 percent higher chance of suicide than pretty much any other job, and oftentimes they feel forced to suffer in silence.

Depression, PTSD, corrections fatigue, and substance abuse are all common for those who work behind the walls of Michigan prisons. In fact, research shows more than 25 percent of correction officers in the U.S. suffer from moderate to extreme depression, and that is a growing concern.

"They're supposed to be tough, they're supposed to be able to handle those things. and there's really not an outlet for those people that are suffering in silence," correction officer Cary Johnson said.

After 25 years of serving as a corrections officer at Cotton Correctional Facility, Cary Johnson is speaking out. She says with then higher depression and PTSD rates the 6,200 CO's in the state are more at-risk for suicide than the general public. Things like fearing for your life, breaking up fights, or correctional fatigue contribute to the high rates.

"We've had four officers, three recently retired, and one currently working kill themselves and honestly, none of them were ever expected to be suffering or have any mental health issues or even dealing with depression. All of them were strong men who were my friends and mentors."

At least nine corrections officers in Michigan have taken their own lives since 2015. Johnson says this awareness can save lives.

"And I'm hoping that when there is awareness towards the issues then people are able to identify it so they can maybe say 'I feel normal,' or 'maybe I do need to talk to somebody,'" she said.

With studies like this in mind, Michigan Senator Jim Runstead introduced a bill to create a commission with law enforcement on it to dig deeper into what pushes them to suicide and what they can do to prevent it.
Johnson says providing resources and spreading awareness is a step in the right direction.

"There are heroes inside and that there are hard-working men and women that are protecting the community from inside prisons," she said.

News 10 sat down with the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, Heidi Washington. She said they care about their staff and they have started and expanded numerous programs to help. This includes a "Wellness Unit" with a statewide peer-support network at all correctional facilities, a chaplaincy component, and expanding the Traumatic Incident Stress Management Program. MDOC says it's important to talk openly about the topic.

"I think that this topic is important because it impacts human beings and it impacts the people we care about. People that we work alongside in what is sometimes a dangerous environment. We want all of our staff to be healthy because that's the safe way, the good way, and the way to live a happy, healthy, prosperous life. That's what I want for all of our staff," Washington said.

Senate Bill 228 aims to create a suicide prevention commission that will research the causes of suicide, and appoint someone to represent CO's on the committee. It is currently making its way through the legislature.

To read the full study conducted by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, click here.

To read about Senate Bill 228, click here.

If you or someone you know is in distress, help is available. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support. Call 1-800-273-8255. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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