The darkness inside
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“A high prevalence” of signs of post-traumatic stress injury among serving and former police in New Zealand has been revealed in the results of a survey of Police Association members.
The 80-question electronic survey, completed by 4489 respondents, gives statistical confirmation of previous anecdotal reports and red flags raised among members about post-traumatic stress (PTS).
Most of those taking part in the survey were serving sworn members (2027), along with 460 serving Police employees; 563 resigned sworn; 80 resigned Police employees; 617 retired sworn; and 66 retired Police employees; (676 did not answer the question on their employment status).
The questions were designed to assess causes and symptoms of PTS and related behaviours such as “hazardous” drinking and insomnia.
Study author Garth den Heyer, a former New Zealand police inspector turned international policing researcher, said the results showed that:
- 1925 (14.2%) of participants had scores of more than 45, indicating a potential clinical PTS diagnosis; 283 (6.3%) of those were serving members.
- 641 (42.8%) of participants had scores of more than 30, which indicated significant PTS symptoms; 947 (49.3%) of those were serving members.
PTS was prevalent among serving, resigned and retired police members, and exposure to trauma, especially prolonged trauma, was significantly associated with PTS, Dr den Heyer said.
Many of the constabulary staff reported having been assaulted (68%), shot at or having a firearm presented at them (22%), or had worked in one-, two- or three-person stations, all of which were associated with an increase in the likelihood of PTS symptoms, he said.
“The findings from this study indicate that exposure to trauma is strongly associated with high levels of PTS, while good sleep and relaxation decrease the influence of such variables.”
He suggests that an understanding of the factors that increase the risk of PTS in Police members could help identify strategies to prevent it. Screening for PTS symptoms to enable early intervention strategies could also encourage discussion of the subject and reduce stigma.
Police Association president Chris Cahill says the results highlight the need for the association and Police to work together to understanding the issues better. “This would enable us to work in the prevention space and also consider how best to respond to the needs of staff, past and present, who are suffering from PTS.”
The findings also showed that PTS symptoms were more prevalent among New Zealand Police members than New Zealand military personnel, who did the same survey in 2020 with 1817 respondents (30% had probable PTS and 10% had clinically relevant symptoms).
The prevalence of clinically significant PTS was also higher among police than in the general population (3%).
“Support for dealing with PTS is needed for a large number of constabulary and non-constabulary members who are serving or have resigned or retired,” Dr den Heyer says.
“Policing has changed extensively since the 1980s,” he noted in his report, which cited other research providing context for the policing environment, including exposure to violence and the continual change in police organisational structures.
He quoted studies showing that a police officer will be exposed to more violent or traumatic events or images during their career than most citizens will encounter in a lifetime, including line of duty deaths, serious injuries, school/workplace/religious site shootings, murders, suicides, violent sexual or physical assaults, abuse or death of children, police shootings in the line of duty, family violence, handling dead bodies and mass fatalities.
The role of a police officer was among the top 20 occupations identified as having a negative impact on an individual’s health.
Other research showed that repeated exposure to violent and traumatic events could cause officers to have sleeping problems, intense feelings, a short temper and feel depressed, fatigued and emotionless. Frequent exposure to traumatic and violent events or images could haunt an officer and lead to suicide, marital problems and substance abuse.
Other studies showed that the culture of police could sometimes lead to a perception that officers could cope with extreme, repeated events. Combined with a lack of trust in police management, that could be a barrier to officers seeking help.
Whether or not an individual officer developed PTS symptoms could depend on the person’s age and the presence of unique personal and situational factors, such as strong social support, personal resiliency, and satisfaction with life.
The association has supported Dr den Heyer’s work by distributing the survey to its members, serving and retired. As a follow-up, Dr den Heyer is looking into the possibility of running the survey among Australian police jurisdictions, which would allow for comparisons and possibly contribute to prevention solutions.
In his role as an instructor and contributor to various academic institutions in the United States and Britain, he has previously researched policing of riots, the use of Tasers and the policing of minority communities, including the use of iwi liaison officers in New Zealand.