James Dahm has worked at the City Justice Center in St. Louis for nearly a decade, but he hasn’t forgotten how hard it was to learn the ropes as a rookie jail officer.
Not long after he started, he ran into his lieutenant in the breakroom, who tried to offer some encouragement.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, it gets better,’” Dahm remembered. “I asked him, ‘Does it get better, or do you just get used to it?’ and he said, ‘A little of both.’”
New recruits may face more than simply a steep learning curve, according to new research from St. Louis University. About 1 in 3 jail officers surveyed in Missouri showed symptoms of depression — with younger officers at a higher risk than their older colleagues.
More than 745,000 people are held in county and city jails in the U.S., according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The environment is stressful for both inmates and employees, said Lisa Jaegers, an assistant professor of occupational science at St. Louis University and study co-author.
“When an individual is arrested, they come directly from the street into the jail,” Jaegers said. “They may be experiencing a mental health episode or extreme trauma. They could be having the worst day of their life.”
Exposure to trauma and violence — in addition to common workplace stressors like understaffing and mandatory overtime — can affect jail officers’ mental health.
Jaegers and her colleagues previously found more than 50% of jail officers surveyed in Missouri showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In this latest study, the team examined whether jail officers also struggle with depression. They surveyed a total of 320 officers at two urban jails and two rural jails within 60 miles of St. Louis.
About one-third of officers reported symptoms consistent with clinical depression — substantially higher than the overall rate of depression in the U.S., which is just over 8%.
When it comes to depression among jail officers, age appears to play a role.
The older the officer was, the less likely he or she was to experience symptoms of depression. Jaegers said these older officers may have developed the resilience to withstand the stress of the job — which young recruits have yet to learn.
“When new officers come into these environments, I find that sometimes it's a little bit of shell shock,” she said. “They didn't realize the extent to which they would be impacted, so I think that starts the cycle of stress and potentially burnout.”
Signs of burnout, like feeling emotionally drained after work or treating inmates as though they were objects, were also strongly associated with depression.
Dahm, who's now a case worker at the City Justice Center, said the “hard-headed” officers who can compartmentalize their stress are usually the ones who stick around.
“There's certain aspects of this job that you really need to leave at the front door,” he said. “The people who take it home with them are the ones that tend to burn out.”
But changes at the individual level, like learning how to better cope with stress, may not be enough to address mental health challenges among jail officers.
Instead, Jaegers said changing the work culture itself may be a better long-term solution.
“The work culture seems to really beat people down and not focus on their strengths, but focuses on their weaknesses,” she said. “I’m looking at ways of changing the culture of the workplace so that it focuses on positivity and strengthening existing skills.”
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