When Helping Hurts: PTSD and Police Officers
5 minute read
Every day police officers put their well-being – physical and mental – on the line to protect and serve our communities. But while police officers are putting themselves on the line to protect us, who is protecting them?
In recent years there has been an increase in activities to create awareness around mental health issues and to support the wellbeing of police officers, however according to Beyond Blue’s national 'Answering the Call' survey and findings, there is still more that can be done.
Police Officer mental health statistics
Answering the call was a landmark national survey that provided the first-ever baseline of data and findings. It highlighted the risk factors experienced by police and emergency services personnel and was intended to help agencies to internally benchmark, create and measure change.
Some of the key mental health statistics included:
One in three employees experience high or very high psychological distress, which is significantly higher than the rate of one in eight adults in the general Australian population
More than half of those surveyed indicated they had experienced a traumatic event that had deeply affected them during the course of their work
Employees who had served for over 10 years were almost twice as likely to experience psychological distress and were six times more likely to experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Poor workplace practices and culture were found to be just as damaging to an officer’s mental health as occupational trauma
What is PTSD?
Blue Hope defines Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as “a severe and persistent stress reaction after exposure to a traumatic event”. Whilst not everyone who experiences a traumatic event goes on to develop PTSD, for some people the distress they feel does not subside after the event and might even increase in intensity over the weeks and months that follow.
PTSD has many possible symptoms including intrusive memories, vivid nightmares, hypervigilance, fight or flight reactions and experiences that bring back memories of the events, known as “triggers”.
Police Officers and PTSD
Much like other first responder duties, policing is a stressful and demanding occupation; with officers potentially exposed to any number of dangerous situations, violent individuals, disasters, death threats, shootings and hostage situations.
Police support not-for-profit organisation Blue Hope reports that the number of police suicides is much higher than the general population (18.1/100,000 v 12/100,000) and that PTSD is often the trigger.
Unfortunately, police agencies cannot completely eliminate the risk of exposing officers to traumatic events, however, they can control the environments that officers return to at the end of their shift, and the resources and support that workers have access to.
Answering the call found that workplaces that provide higher levels of support and inclusiveness, facilitate discussions about traumatic experiences and effectively manage the emotional demands on police officers have lower rates of psychological distress and probable PTSD. It’s this change to workplace practices and culture that can help to protect and support police officers.
What else can be done to protect police officers?
Police agencies need to develop, implement and/or reinforce a workplace mental health strategy – Answering the call found that many respondents with high or very high distress and probable PTSD did not self-report that they were struggling, which could suggest poor mental health literacy (as many respondents were unable to identify a mental health issue themselves).
Reduce the stigma surrounding PTSD and other mental health issues – while Answering the call found that most respondents did not hold stigmatising attitudes toward their colleagues, unfortunately, the study found very high rates of self-stigma around the shame respondents had about their mental health condition, avoiding telling people about their mental health condition and not wanting to cause a burden to those around them.
Strong leadership and management practices – this can directly influence how officers cope with and manage the demands of their job. It is important for leaders to be able to have the confidence and skills to identify when individuals in their team are struggling and have difficult conversations early.
Educate and prepare police officers – while you cannot predict when a traumatic situation will occur, there are many known risks and events that a police officer will likely encounter at some point. It is vital to prepare officers for the impact these situations may have on them as an individual, provide guidance on how to respond effectively and educate officers on how to access support if they are struggling; whether through anonymous counselling sessions or providing access to employee assistance programs.
If you’re a police officer in need of counselling or mental health assistance, contact Blue Hope on 1300 00 BLUE (2583) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other crisis lines:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
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