This paper describes the Oregon Department of Corrections' efforts to research and improve its corrections staff health and wellness following four staff suicides over a 19-month period that included 2012.
Corrections staff suicides have continued in the years since. When the Department of Corrections conducted a review of research on this issue, hardly any was found, so they asked Portland State University to conduct research on the mental health and well-being of Oregon's corrections officers, and the Oregon Health Sciences University was asked to study the physical well-being of corrections staff. These studies found that one in three of the staff had symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the average life span of an individual serving in corrections was 58 years, which is 16 years shorter than the life span for an average adult male. Physically, just over 90 percent of the staff were obese or overweight; 93 percent had hypertension or pre-hypertension and high cholesterol and triglycerides. There was an increased risk for certain cancers, high stress, alcohol abuse, and sleep deprivation. Corrections officers working in maximum-security facilities were at highest risk for poor mental and physical health. In response to these research findings, the Oregon Department of Corrections launched just over 160 wellness programs across the state. These include training and scheduling in virtual reality meditation to relieve stress and a team-based, 12-week program to guide staff in improving their physical health. Families of correctional staff are also taught strategies for recognizing and mitigating stress. Positive feedback has been received from staff members and their families.