Monday, June 2, 2014 Suicide rate among corrections officers high SILENT KILLER By Paula J. Owen TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF A 2010 family photo of the late Michael Mellen of Northbridge with his daughter Bryanna Mellen. (SUBMITTED PHOTO) NORTHBRIDGE — Bryanna M. Mellen didn't understand how the rate of suicides and mental health issues among correction officers could be so high, and yet no one she talked to knew about it. When the 21-year-old University of Rhode Island senior first moved to Rhode Island from her hometown of Northbridge after her father's suicide, she said, she was heartbroken and looking for answers. She wanted to know why the loving, sometimes overprotective father her friends called "Daddy Mells" completely changed one day after years working as a correction officer at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center maximum security prison in Shirley. And why he drove to Webster Lake on Aug. 25, 2011, sat in his car and shot himself in the head with a shotgun. "When they told me the statistics on correction officers, I didn't even understand at first," she said at her mother's house Thursday after getting home from work. "How could the numbers be so shocking and no one knows them? I started telling people. I thought it was crazy nobody knows the numbers." She also changed her major from nursing to public health with a minor in psychology, she said. According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Programs Diagnostic Center, correction officers have a much higher rate of suicide than those in other occupations; a large percentage of correction officers experience some level of post traumatic stress disorder during their careers; and a correction officer, on average, will not live to see a 59th birthday. Ms. Mellen's father was 45. Her mother, Michelle L. Mellen, a 48-year-old occupational therapist from Northbridge, said there were signs leading up to the day her husband committed suicide, but she and others who knew him never thought he would take his own life. "We didn't know what we were seeing would lead to something bad," she said. Mr. Mellen had worked at the prison for 22 years, she said, and was captain, when one day he came home and said, "I can't go back there one more day," she said. He retired early in 2010, a year before he died, and was trying to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. "We didn't know he was suffering all along," she said. "Just before he retired, he hit a wall and said, 'I just can't go there anymore.' Not knowing what he wanted to do added to his depression, and we're pretty sure he had PTSD. He was withdrawing, was cynical, and very negative and angry all the time." Mr. Mellen seemed to be in a lost state, she said, and was in "culture shock" because no one really understood what correction officers do in prison. "He felt like there was not a lot of respect for what they did and people think they are just babysitters of prisoners," she said. "That was his biggest complaint when he was looking for a job after retiring — the lack of respect for his field when he told people." She said when she realized the difficult time he was having, she asked him to get help. "There were huge changes in his personality," she said. "He was not the same person anymore. He was on edge and kept refusing to get help." She decided to take a break and took Byranna to stay with family in Northbridge for a week. "I saw him once and he was crying a lot," she said. "I asked him to please get help, but I think he already made up his mind." Police found him in his car around 5 p.m., she said. Since then, Bryanna and best friend Julie E. Broderick, a 22-year-old Worcester State University business and marketing major, have tried to make sense of Mr. Mellen's death and turn it into something positive. "I feel like they can talk about it, but I can't," Ms. Broderick said, crying. "Daddy Mells was protective of not only Bryanna and Mikey (her younger brother), but all of us. They were a welcoming family and he was another father figure. When I found out, it just didn't make sense." The best friends agreed to work to raise awareness about the difficulties correction officers face and started a nonprofit — the On Guard Initiative. "It was a seriously heartbreaking event that inspired us and the community to shed light on a very important issue that has been in the dark for far too long," Bryanna Mellen said. "Our organization is about fostering a community of healthy correction officers and urging them to take a proactive approach to their mental health." Her mother said she has a strong desire to speak to correction officers directly. "I want to tell them it takes a big man to come forward and say you're having a hard time," she said. "Staying quiet is not brave. It is important to show them, here's a normal family that this abnormal thing happened to, and tell them to take care of themselves and their family. Don't let this happen. "The disturbing thing is so many correction officers have committed suicide since Michael committed suicide and the only people who know about it are other correction officers." Ms. Broderick said On Guard wants to help correction officers take a proactive approach to their mental health. The state needs to provide more support, she said, instead of waiting for something to happen and then trying to fix the situation. Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis said being a correction officer is one of the least appreciated positions in public safety. "Half of the people they are dealing with are incarcerated and the other half is awaiting trial," Mr. Evangelidis said. "It is a dangerous environment to go into every day. It is a negative, difficult and stressful environment, and it is not a job for everybody." His office has a critical incident stress management team with crisis intervention training assigned to deal with issues correction officers face. "We want them to know we will help those employees who put themselves on the line every day," he said. "We try to support our officers in any way we can." Rebecca J. Pellegrino, special sheriff at the Worcester County Sherriff's office, said part of the problem is that there may be stigma among a correction officer's colleagues if they admit to having depression or PTSD. "They are supposed to be big and tough and there is a fear of what peers would think," she said. "If inmates find out, it could turn into taunting or used against an officer. We want to make sure they are OK and that they are not alone." Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian and the National Sheriff's Association co-hosted a first-of-its-kind conference on Correction Officer Wellness in Lowell a little over a year ago that was attended by 300 corrections professionals across the country. Mr. Koutoujian said there is a silent health crisis affecting correction officers that needs to be addressed. On June 14, On Guard has a team participating in the eighth annual law enforcement softball tournament at Fournier Field in Leominster. The all-day event starts at 8 a.m. Proceeds will benefit On Guard and the Boston Fire Department. On Guard is providing educational information and will sell T-shirts. For more information, visit Onguardinitiative.org or look for it on Facebook.