Research Findings Mark The Dismal Toll Of Police Stress

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“Policing,” writes Dr. John Violanti, one of the leading researchers of law enforcement stress, “is psychologically stressful work filled with danger, high demands, ambiguity in encounters, human misery, and exposure to death.”

And that may be the least of its dark side.

“Law enforcement is one of a number of often stressful professions that has attracted the interest of researchers who are compelled to study the stressors involved in a particular line of work and their impact on those engaged in the profession,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, Executive Director of the Force Science Institute. “For a significant number of cops, the worst part of the job will likely be its long-term negative impact on personal health and wellbeing, ranging from heart problems to cancer to suicide as identified in recent research.”

The dismal truth is pulled together in a recent special issue of the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, which devotes its pages to seven major reports on the adverse health outcomes linked to common daily stressors in police work. The findings are drawn in large part from a multi-year study led by Violanti, a former NY State trooper, involving a vast and diverse pool of Buffalo (NY) PD officers.

Violanti is a professor of social and preventive medicine at the University of Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions. His landmark exploration of stress outcomes was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

A summary of the Journal articles can be accessed free of charge at the NIOSH blog. Click here to visit the site. Within the blog, you can link to abstracts of the various studies.

It’s not happy reading. Among the highlights:

  • Striking differences between cops and the general population are found in multiple important health-related categories. Officers are nearly twice as likely as civilians to suffer symptoms of depression (12% vs. 6.8%), significantly more show evidence of the metabolic syndrome believed to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes (25% vs. 18.7%), and nearly four times more likely to sleep less than six hours out of every 24 (31.4% vs. 8%).
  • Sleep problems deepen as stressful feelings intensify. Male officers who perceive themselves having the highest stress levels are nearly six times more likely to get poor and inadequate sleep than the least stressed officers; females nearly four times more likely. Poor sleep adversely affects “emotional regulation,” and as sleep quality deteriorates depression symptoms escalate significantly among both male and female officers.
  • In-depth examinations of obesity and of the metabolic syndrome reveal an association between obesity and depression in male officers and a link between stress and metabolic symptoms in female officers. Females seemed particularly susceptible to stress from “administrative and organizational pressure and lack of support.”
  • Although retired officers are often considered to be at greatest risk for suicide, Violanti’s work suggests otherwise. After a 55-year retrospective of more than 3,200 officers, he reports that suicide rates are 8.4 times higher in working officers, compared to retired officers or those who left law enforcement.
  • Another study, covering more than 2,200 officers across a 30-year period, concentrates on cancer rates. Officers seem similar to the US general white-male population regarding cancer overall. But they display an elevated risk of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that can spread throughout the body via lymph nodes. And, Violanti writes, “The risk of brain cancer [among officers], although only slightly elevated relative to the general population, [is] significantly increased with 30 years or more of police service.”

The culture of police work, Violanti believes, often goes against improving stress-related health problems.

“The police culture doesn’t look favorably on people who have problems,” he says. “Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you’re an officer, but you fear asking for help.” Officers who reveal that they suffer from a chronic disease or health deficiency may lose financial status, professional reputation, or both, he explains.

The solution, he suggests, needs to start at the academy level, with training that helps new officers understand signs of stress and how to get them treated. Education is also necessary for police leadership and management to accept officers who ask for help for their health issues.

Meanwhile, Violanti has more research underway.

Note: Violanti is scheduled to speak at a two-day conference on law enforcement suicide prevention Nov. 7-8 at the NY State Police Academy in Albany. Free, online registration is available at: http://cop.spcollege.edu/Registration.htm.

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