Post-traumatic stress risk to police officers lower than previously thought
Although police officers are at a high risk of experiencing traumatic events (TE) in their work, they are no more likely than the general population to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These are the findings from the second phase of an original and groundbreaking study published by the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST) on the risk and protective factors of post-traumatic stress reactions in Quebec police officers.
This study also confirms that symptoms associated with the development of PTSD in police officers can be attenuated or prevented with specific and adapted intervention. These symptoms include dissociative reactions, emotional and physical reactions, a state of acute stress, depressive symptoms, and emotional coping responses to stress. “Providing police officers with interventional support shortly after and in the weeks following a TE improves the chances of preventing PTSD,” explained André Marchand, lead author of the study, researcher at the Fernand-Seguin Research Centre of Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital and Associate Professor at Université de Montréal. “The strategies for adapting to trauma, such as developing a stress-resistant personality and obtaining social support, can be improved through prevention components of police officer training programs,” said Mr. Marchand.
The descriptive analysis results show that police offers have different adaptation methods and strategies at their disposal in order to deal with a critical work-related event. In fact, the police officers stated that talking to their colleagues, obtaining peer support and taking part in leisure activities are particularly helpful after a TE. “The police offers involved in this study even advise their colleagues who experience this kind of event to consult a psychologist and are themselves open to the idea of receiving psychological support if need be,” said Mélissa Martin, co-author and psychologist at the Trauma Study Centre at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital.
This study, the first of its kind in Quebec, could be used as a reference for further research using a sample of Quebec police officers. The knowledge gained will help screen for and prevent PTSD. Recommendations based on this research will help police departments create strategies to both develop mechanisms that protect police officers from TE and decrease risk factors. This study could also have a significant impact on other people with a high risk of experiencing work-related TE (firefighters, paramedics, first-aid workers, first responders, etc.).
What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. Usually, with time, the upset fades and you start to enjoy life again. But sometimes the trauma is so overwhelming that you find that you can’t move on. You feel stuck with a constant sense of danger and painful memories that don’t fade.
If you went through a traumatic experience and are having trouble getting back to your regular life, reconnecting to others, and feeling safe again, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, it can seem like you’ll never get over what happened or feel normal again. But by seeking treatment, reaching out for support, and developing new coping skills, you can overcome the symptoms of PTSD and move on with your life.
What are the signs?
The symptoms of PTSD usually begin within 3 months of the traumatic event. However, sometimes they surface many years later. The duration of PTSD, and the strength of the symptoms, vary. For some people, recovery may be achieved in 6 months; for others, it may take much longer.
There are three categories of symptoms. The first involves re-experiencing the event. This is the main characteristic of PTSD and it can happen in different ways. Most commonly the person has powerful, recurrent memories of the event, or recur-rent nightmares or flashbacks in which they re-live their distressing experience. The anniversary of the triggering event, or situations which remind them of it, can also cause extreme discomfort. Avoidance and emotional numbing are the second category of symptoms. The first occurs when people with PTSD avoid encountering scenarios which may remind them of the trauma. Emotional numbing generally begins very soon after the event. A person with PTSD may withdraw from friends and family, they may lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed and have difficulty feeling emotions, especially those associated with intimacy. Feelings of extreme guilt are also common.
In rare cases, a person may enter dissociative states, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to several days, during which they believe they are re-living the episode, and behave as if it is happening all over again. The third category of symptoms involves changes in sleeping patterns and increased alertness. Insomnia is common and some people with PTSD have difficulty concentrating and finishing tasks. Increased aggression can also result.
Eighty-three policemen (63 men and 20 women) from the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) and other police forces who had experienced a traumatic event volunteered for this prospective study and were evaluated at four intervals. Among the participants, 64% had to draw their guns, 11% fired their guns, while 28% of them used another weapon. A feeling of powerlessness in relation to the TE was reported by 80% of the police officers, and 59% of them felt a reaction of intense fear. More than half of the police officers said they experienced anger, 17% felt guilt, and 2% felt shame when the TE occurred.
University of Montreal