Self-care program helps Pennsylvania juvenile justice caregivers combat stress

Mel Miller
September 21, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Imagine going to work each day knowing that you may need to comfort a tearful 15-year-old as she reveals the devastating details of abuse by her mother’s boyfriend. Or, that you may have to restrain a suicidal teenager to keep him from hurting himself. Or, that you could be attacked by an 18-year-old who thinks he will be sent to jail and make bail (but he won’t).

To help staff cope with the stress and strain encountered routinely in these residential facilities, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) through the Office of Children, Youth and Families, Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services (BJJS) is taking action. A new mindfulness-based self-care initiative is being launched to teach youth services workers stress-management techniques needed to reduce the physical and emotional effects of on-the-job stress.

BJJS has partnered with Penn State’s Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center to develop a specialized self-care curriculum and conduct training in collaboration with BJJS training staff. The program will introduce mindfulness skills, attention-focusing practices that incorporate breathing and body awareness to relieve stress.

Pennsylvania has long been a leader in juvenile justice reform. It was the first state to participate in the 2004 Models for Change initiative, which called for operational changes to address disproportionate minority contact, and improved mental health and aftercare supports within the juvenile justice system. The state’s commitment to sustain reform and make improvements based on evidence-based strategies continues.

“This is just another way we are working to improve the juvenile justice system at every level,” said Lois Huling, director of administration and quality improvement at BJJS. “The challenges our staff face working with high-risk kids cause a lot of personal and professional stress. This program has the potential to make the lives of our staff better, inside and outside of work.”

After the state implemented its Juvenile Justice System Enhancement Strategy in 2012, more low-risk youth were diverted from highly restrictive environments. Since then, state-run facilities that typically operate close to full capacity are drawing youth with more serious issues that add to the already enormous pressures on staff.

By learning mindfulness-based, self-care techniques to deal with stress on the job, the BJJS staff are joining the ranks of other highly stressful occupations including teachers, police officers and military personnel for whom stress-reduction programs have been developed.

BJJS staff, most of whom are new to this type of self-care, are embracing the program.

“People are getting excited about the techniques we’ve shown them,” said Sebrina Doyle, a specialist in the practice of mindfulness and program leader. “We are hearing positive feedback and staff are sharing new ideas to mindfully de-stress.” 

In developing the curriculum, Doyle is drawing from her work with Tish Jennings on an evidence-based, mindfulness training program, "Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education," or CARE, which helps teachers reduce stress and promotes awareness, presence, compassion, reflection, and inspiration. Doyle is also incorporating lessons learned from a mindfulness-based study conducted by Nirbhay Singh, on staff who care for people with developmental disabilities showing the cost-effectiveness of teaching these strategies.

Some of the stress-reduction tools Doyle is introducing to staff include “Navy Seal” box breath, a controlled breathing exercise, and “Soles of Feet,” a body awareness practice.

Mindfulness-based techniques have been used successfully to treat chronic health problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety; reduce conflict racial and age bias; improve focus; and prevent substance use and relapse.

“Through implementation of this program, the hope is to reduce stress-related illness and injuries, absences, burnout and job turnover … because despite the physical attacks and exposure to secondary trauma, the staff here love their jobs. It’s high risk, but it’s also high reward. They stay because they love the work,” said Huling. 

By addressing the stress-related problems of its youth services workers, Pennsylvania once again is proving its leadership in juvenile justice — this time by strengthening the safety net for Pennsylvania’s troubled youth by caring for the caregivers. Their efforts with youth are sometimes the last chance these children have to turn their lives around and escape a destiny of corrections, or even death. 

Last Updated June 08, 2021