Taboo of confronting mental illness hurts staff, inmates

The CDCR Cabinet donned lime green ribbons to recognize Mental Health Month.

By Scott Kernan, CDCR Secretary

The stigma of mental illness is as pervasive in our prisons as it is in our communities. In the macho prison environment, where weakness equals vulnerability, those with mental illness are among the most stereotyped by other inmates and, unfortunately, by some staff as well. Among many of us, it’s a taboo subject even while we grieve the too-frequent staff suicides and other mental health maladies that plague our profession. I don’t believe you can live or work in a prison environment and not experience stressors that could impact your mental health. But we don’t talk about it. In fact, we make it worse by judging and stereotyping, and that perpetuates the negative stigma.

Fifty percent of us will experience a mental health challenge in our lifetime. Certainly all of us will witness mental health challenges affecting somebody we know or even love, and we deal with mental health challenges in the people we incarcerate on a daily basis. I had the privilege of working at the California Medical Facility for over a decade. I saw first-hand the dedication and commitment of the mental health professionals who tried to minimize stigma and treat the individuals in their charge. I also witnessed custody staff work with our mental health professionals to provide a compassionate environment. We would all do well to learn more about mental illness, listen to the mental health professionals in our prisons, and put an end to the negative judgments and stereotypes.

To that end, May is national Mental Health Month. It’s symbolized by lime-green ribbons, so look out for them and consider wearing one yourself. There will be events and information-sharing throughout the month. I hope it’s a time for our great staff to recognize mental health challenges not as a stigma, but as a treatable condition for all human beings, including staff and inmates. I urge you this month to consider how we treat people with mental illness and to provide the compassionate care that leads to recovery and a safer prison environment. I also hope this month will be a time for all of us to recognize the great work that our mental health staff does every day and how important they are to the safety and security of our prisons and our mission of public safety.

For more information about mental health challenges, where to get support, and what to do if you are concerned about a loved one, please visit: www.eachmindmatters.org. CDCR employees can also visit the CDCR Office of Employee Wellness, Peer Support Services Section (916) 327-8570, and Employee Assistance Program (866) 327-4762 or http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/wellness/.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusreddit