Why we all need a hug & other lessons learned from a prison

Posted: 23rd October 2017

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is being able to deliver relaxation therapies to certain groups of people who need it most. In my 19 years as a complementary therapist, I’ve found that one of those groups of people is prison officers, and I feel very blessed that I’m regularly invited into a number of prisons in the West Midlands to provide treatments. A couple of weeks ago, I took a team of therapists to a prison in Worcestershire where I delivered treatments as part of their staff wellbeing day, and was particularly humbled by the caring attitude of the prison officers towards the inmates, despite the very obvious strains of the job.

The statistics regarding stress levels in prison officers are quite shocking. Stress-related illness among prison officers has grown to a level four times the national average, and prison officers in England and Wales took more than 30,000 days off work due to stress  in 2015 – 2016, according to Ministry of Justice data.

We set up our treatment space in a side room just off the main meeting hall where staff were having their height and weight recorded, as part of a general health MOT. As usual, we were handed a list of members of staff who had put their names down for treatments, and were surprised to find only a handful of names on there. We needn’t have worried. A steady trickle of people started coming through the door and, in the end, there was a queue of people wanting Hopi ear candling, acupuncture and Indian head massage.

Some of the officers preferred to have their treatments in silence (in fact a few of them were on the verge of falling asleep!) Others wanted to chat, and a few opened up about the stress of the role. Working ‘on the landings’, in particular, brought a whole host of challenges. They admitted that the often quite traumatic situations and unpleasant behaviour from offenders that they dealt with on a daily basis, took its toll over time – with some staff joking that they could do with a team of therapists permanently stationed at the prison, so they could access the treatments at any time! Then one female member of staff, whose stress levels had been off the scale when she entered the room, said she thought that all the prisoners really need is a hug.

Offenders often have a complex history and deep-rooted problems, so it is clear that ‘a hug’ is not a cure-all. However, this woman did have a good point. A lack of physical contact with loved ones must be hard, and when this is for years at a time, it creates its own problems. Research shows that people who are touch deprived are more prone to emotional dysfunction, such as depression, and that hugging can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. While I’m not offering a solution to this issue for prisoners, I was bowled over by the compassion of this statement by the prison officer, who had obviously experienced her fair share of hostility from the inmates.

Just as an aside, one treatment the prisoners do receive is auricular acupuncture – where the needles are inserted into the ear. This helps with anxiety, insomnia and addictions. Apparently, the benefits of this therapy for offenders are enormous.

In order to obtain future funding for our treatments at the prison, we asked the staff to rate their stress levels both before and after their individual treatment on a scale of 0 – 10, where 0 was ‘not stressed at all’ and 10 was ‘very stressed’. Ratings ranged mainly between 7 and 10 prior to treatments and were brought down to less than 5 in most cases after treatments – with a few zeros, and one officer rating her post-treatment stress level at minus 10! As well as this fantastic feedback, people expressed their gratitude many times during the course of the day. As always, I was more than impressed with the support the prison gives to its staff, and utterly convinced that these therapy sessions are worth their weight in gold to individuals who work hard in a role that is so demanding – emotionally, mentally and physically. And as we drove home, I couldn’t help thinking how true it is that all we really need is a hug!

Annie Day of Heaven Scent Bliss in Stafford has been working as a Complementary Therapist since 1998 and offers a full range of healing treatments, which she tailors to the individual client www.heavenscentbliss.co.uk

Annie can be contacted at annie@heavenscentbliss.co.uk or on 07869 123065.