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Research Summaries

AMStrength – Correctional Officers views and interpretations

Keywords: AMStrength, Mental Health Training

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Why was the study done?

Correctional workers are regularly exposed to dangerous and stressful situations. Correctional Officers (COs) in particular are at a high risk for developing symptoms consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and  other mental health disorders. In recent years CO’s mental health has become a concern. Organizations have begun to incorporate more training to support mental health. Correctional Service Canada is using a psychoeducation program, Advanced Mental Strength and Conditioning program (AMStrength). This program is first offered during the correctional training program and is presented in seven- two-hour sessions. The program includes information on how to be aware of your mental health, using the mental health continuum with green, yellow, and red levels. It also encourages strategies like “pulse check” to manage mental health and stress.

Limited research has been done on the programs and strategies available to support CO mental health. The goal of the present study is to determine how COs perceive AMStrength.

What was done in the study?

Researchers conducted interviews between Oct 2019 to May 2021 with 70 COs employed in 19 of Canada’s 43 federal prisons. Each CO had been out of training and on the job for at least a year. The interviews were part of a larger multiyear study, and the questions reviewed here were focused on the COs’ use and opinions of the AMStrength program.

What did we find out?

  • All participants recalled learning AMStrength during training, but only 18.8% reported using its lessons during their work life.
  • Most users of AMStrength (50%) relied on mindfulness activities to improve mental health. An additional 20% relied on exercise as a strategy.
  • For those who didn’t use AMStrength, 36.6% relied on communication with co-workers, mindfulness activities (24.4%), and exercise (22%) to help support their mental health.
  • Overwhelmingly participants did not see a use for AMStrength. Many often used a dismissive or insulting tone when discussing the program. A few referred to the program as a “joke.”
  • This dismissive tone continued when COs were asked if they used “pulse checks.”
  • Some felt the AMStrength program was just a political response to pressure from the Federal Government to improve CO mental health.
  • Participants felt the program did not meet their personal needs or it was hard to practice in a correctional environment.
  • Most participants focused on their personal strategies to help their mental health. Some personal strategies were similar to AMStrength but modified to suit their needs.
  • Importantly, most COs did feel that AMStrength provided a space to start a discussion on mental health and increase mental health awareness.
  • Participants indicated the importance of organizational support for mental health and a noticeable shift in the younger generation of COs on the significance of mental health. However, participants still reported stigma as an issue when deciding to look for mental health support.
  • COs recommended improving the program to make it more relevant to the realities of prison work. They also suggested a format that would make it “less dry” with more practical examples.

Where do we go from here?

While not overly popular, AMStrength does seem to accomplish the mission of promoting mental health awareness. Though participants widely dismissed the program, they still supported the need to care for mental health.  Programs like AMStrength need to be flexible and responsive to the needs of those taking the course. While skills like meditation and “pulse check” might be beneficial, they are not practical to use in a correctional environment, particularly during an incident requiring de-escalation. Researchers must continue to examine the effectiveness of programs like AMStrength and create customized interventions that support each PSP sector.

The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.

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Original Study

Ricciardelli, R., Siqueira Cassiano, M., Adorjan, M., & Mitchel, M.M. (2021). AMStrength program in Canadian federal correctional services: Correctional officers’ views and interpretations. Criminal Justice Studies. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1478601X.2021.1997277

 

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Edited and reviewed by Barootes, B. & Ricciardelli, R.

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