NCCHC's New Board Chair Shares His Thoughts about Coping with COVID-19 - National Commission on Correctional Health Care
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Nov 17, 2020

NCCHC’s New Board Chair Shares His Thoughts about Coping with COVID-19

by Joseph V. Penn, MD, CCHP-MH:

I was recently asked how correctional health care has changed since the last time I was NCCHC chairman in 2008 and 2009. The truth is, in some ways it is very much the same, with similar challenges.

  • Staff recruitment and retention remains a huge issue; it is particularly difficult to find and retain good people in corrections.
  • We still battle misconceptions about our choice to work in corrections, although much has changed, thanks in no small part to you and the work of NCCHC.
  • We still deal with those in the “Free World” who don’t get it. They don’t understand why we are dedicated to serving this patient population. Some people’s attitude is, “Why should those people get health care?”
  • We face everyday stressors in a difficult, restricted work environment. It’s certainly not the cushy, well-heeled working conditions of our free-world colleagues.
  • Every day, we may risk physical and emotional harm as well as vicarious traumatization; we see horrific things that can cause lasting emotional harm or damage.
  • We continue to do more with less.
  • We face budget cuts and reductions in force.
  • We are subject to licensing board complaints, lawsuits, and litigation.
  • And we care for greater numbers of more complex patients, people who are sicker, older, with significant acute and chronic medical issues, substance use disorders, serious mental illness and other challenges.

I would argue that we had a full plate well before the onset of COVID 19. Now, we must work with purpose to combat this threat to our patients, our families, our coworkers, and ourselves. We all feel the overwhelming responsibilities. We cannot escape the current civil unrest, racial tensions, and political upheaval. Many people are also dealing with hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and COVID-related economic and unemployment problems.

Those of us in the “helping professions” are used to diminishing our own mental health needs. We are accustomed to self-sacrifice and putting our patients first. We are less apt to recognize our own personal needs. And working in corrections, we have become experts at handling tough situations without acknowledging the full impact and toll those situations may take upon us.

It’s not surprising that results of a recent survey sent to CCHPs emphasized the negative impact of today’s stress and uncertainty on both staff and the incarcerated.

Obviously, stress can’t be prevented, and most of us have chosen, indeed thrived, in this high-pressure profession. Given that, we absolutely must learn to recognize and manage our stress and build a supportive structure. We owe it to ourselves and everyone around us.

In a subsequent blog post, I will provide practical tips and strategies for taking care of yourself during this terribly challenging pandemic.

Joseph V. Penn, MD, CCHP-MH, is the 2021 chair of the NCCHC Governance Board and board liaison of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

This column is an excerpt of a speech he gave at the 2020 National Conference. To view his talk in its entirety, go to the NCCHC YouTube channel.

Learn more about Dr. Penn.

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