Almost a fifth of police officers experience symptoms of either post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or “Complex PTSD”, with PTSD rates in law enforcement almost five-times higher than across the general population.
Exposure to traumatic events was not simply limited to frontline officers – 90% of police workers, including operational staff such as emergency call operators, have experienced trauma, according to a University of Cambridge study. Of these, one in five reported experiencing either PTSD or Complex PTSD symptoms in the past four weeks.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
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“Complex PTSD” can develop in response to repeated exposure to traumatic events. Symptoms can often include difficulty controlling emotions, periods of disassociation, and physical symptoms such as dizziness and chest pains.
The Job, The Life survey, which gathered responses from almost 17,000 police officers and operational staff, found 12% of trauma-exposed staff showed clear signs of Complex PTSD.
Lead researcher Dr Jess Miller from Cambridge’s Department of Sociology said the results showed a “clinical and public sector crisis”. She, among other commentators, has called for better trauma response support for police staff.
“Dealing with disturbing experiences is a defining part of policing, but employees have a right to expect resources to protect them from the impact of daily trauma exposure. Without such resources in place, the cost to policing and public safety will just mount up,” she said.
“Without decent interventions and monitoring for trauma impact, and a national conversation involving the Home Office and Department of Health, the alarming levels of PTSD our study has uncovered will stay the same.”
The charity Police Care UK called for a national policing mental health strategy, as each police force took a different approach to supporting their staff.
“The service has real challenges around recognising and responding to the signs and symptoms of trauma exposure and is heavily reliant upon generic NHS provision that isn’t equipped for the specialist treatment needed,” said Gill Scott-Moore, chief executive of Police Care UK.
Two-thirds of respondents said they had a mental health condition that could be directly linked to police work. Asked if they would go to work as usual if experiencing psychological issues like stress or depression, 93% said they would.
The researchers noted that long-term exposure to traumatic events could increase the likelihood of physical health conditions developing. Those with Complex PTSD symptoms reported three times the rate of cardiovascular disease as those without Complex PTSD. They were also twice as likely to develop gastrointestinal conditions or immune disorders.
Mental health concerns also extended to those who did not have clinical PTSD or Complex PTSD: half reported feeling fatigued, half said they suffered with anxiety and half had trouble sleeping over the past year.
Affected police officers and staff reported days or months spent in windowless rooms, reviewing “horrific” terrorism material or messages from paedophiles.
One police officer said that they received “little or no support” after dealing with complex sexual abuse cases as the sole investigating officer.
The National Police Chief’s Council launched the National Police Wellbeing Service last month, which aims to provide police forces with occupational health provision, training and health checks.