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Studying the stressors

Nearly $1 million in federal funding to examine correctional officers’ mental wellness

By Jeff Green

An award-winning Memorial researcher is leading a three-year study to assess changes in mental health and well-being among correctional officers in Canada.

Dr. Rose Ricciardelli, professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and her collaborators recently received a total of $989,557 in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), securing one of the agency’s Mental Wellness in Public Safety Team Grants.

“I feel the research is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I want to do well but manage expectations,” Dr. Ricciardelli. “It’s an incredible team and I’m privileged to work with such phenomenal people.”

Examining the challenges

Dr. Ricciardelli is teaming up with public safety experts, union leaders and multidisciplinary researchers – from post-secondary institutions across Canada and internationally – to examine the role of prison work and prisons in shaping correctional officers and their health.

Dr. Rose Ricciardelli
Dr. Rose Ricciardelli
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The study will involve at least 500 officers, following them from post-recruitment, training and into their employment. To date, no researchers have considered whether correctional officers feel prepared for their job and the challenges that often occur during recruitment and training.

“We seek to identify correctional officer recruits’ mental health status, coping skills, views and experiences,” Dr. Ricciardelli explained. “We also plan to see how their experiences affect their health and well-being as well as their perspectives and understandings over the years.

“The project represents a central priority of the Public Safety Stakeholder Committee of the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT),” added Dr. Ricciardelli, who is an inaugural member of the Network Advisory Committee with CIPSRT.

Improving mental health

Dr. Ricciardelli says the team plans to use yearly surveys, in-person interviews, and psychological assessments to assess changes in mental health and well-being among the recruits and officers.

“Correctional workers are essential service providers, even in COVID-19.” — Dr. Rose Ricciardelli

They want to use that data to inform mental health treatment, prevention and early intervention strategies.

“Specifically I want to lower rates of mental disorders among the population and help ensure that correctional officers are working in a healthy and safe environment, which will improve the environment for those incarcerated, as well,” Dr. Ricciardelli said.

“Correctional workers are essential service providers, even in COVID-19, and I feel it’s a societal obligation to keep our essential workers healthy and safe.”

‘Nationally and internationally respected’

The successful team grant award builds on several other CIHR-funded projects led by and involving Dr. Ricciardelli, including funding announced last February to advance research on post-traumatic stress injuries in public safety personnel.

In September 2019 Dr. Ricciardelli was elected a member of the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada for her groundbreaking research, while last December she received the President’s Award for Outstanding Research for her innovative work.

“Memorial is very proud to lead this new collaboration spearheaded by Dr. Rose Ricciardelli, who is nationally and internationally respected for her exceptional social justice research,” said Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research).

“Thank you to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for this significant investment and for supporting Memorial’s cutting-edge research over the past two decades.”

According to CIHR, the Mental Wellness in Public Safety Team Grants support three-year projects designed to develop new research evidence and tools to address knowledge gaps in post-traumatic stress injury among public safety personnel in Canada. In 2018 the federal government committed $20 million over five years to support a new national research consortium between CIHR and CIPSRT.

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