Hundreds of law enforcement officials from around the nation came to Lowell on Monday as part of a first effort to help address mental and occupational health issues faced by corrections officers across the country.
Spearheaded by Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian and the National Sheriffs' Association, hopes were high that the information exchanged during the gathering can help build greater awareness on a profession that sees 39 percent more suicides than any other job in the United States.
"For almost two years, today has been a dream of mine," said Koutoujian, who worked on suicide prevention legislation while chairing Massachusetts House of Representatives’ Committee on Healthcare from 2003 to 2005. "Now we can begin a national discussion that needs to be heard around the issue of officers who died while on the job."
The initiative to gather more attention to the issue struck home for Koutoujian shortly after he became sheriff in 2011. Then, he said, he saw a stone at the Middlesex County House of Corrections that held the names of 50 officers that died in the line of duty, most of whom lost their lives from suicide or stress-related illnesses.
While part of the conference was aimed at providing more comprehensive studies of mental health issues among correctional officers, who are often lumped together with other law enforcement officials, some of the statistics available at the conference cited that 44 percent of all corrections officers suffer some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an incident rate higher than that found in the military.
"Our goal here today was to help develop a new culture to fight these things, to develop new best practices, a sort of psychological body armor," said Koutoujian. "Here in Middlesex County, I’d like to think we’re ahead of others, but we want to help create a better work environment for all corrections officers here and outside of Middlesex County as well."
It may be too soon to tell if the conference can lead to any tangible changes on the issue of mental health among corrections officers.
However, one overriding goal among those at the conference was the hope that corrections officers can gain the notoriety obtained by other law enforcement officials and first responders, and there is a strong belief that goal can be achieved among the conference’s participants.
"Paramedics, police officers, fire fighters; these people are always recognized for the incredibly dangerous jobs they do keeping us safe, but very few people thank corrections officers for the work they do," said Viki Sharp, Executive Director of the City of New York’s Department of Correction Staff Wellness Program. "They spend their entire day around people considered not fit to walk among us. They need help to find balance in their lives, support from family and the community so they can continue to help turn inmates into productive members of society."