In honor of PTSD awareness month, we are featuring this piece on PTSD among police officers.  Because law enforcement is inherently dangerous and unpredictable, police officers often face life-threatening situations such as, traffic accidents, suicides, gunfire and homicides. As a result the rate of PTSD among police officers is 7% to 10%. The traumatic events that they face on the job can bring about severe repercussions on the way they function psychologically, socially and occupationally. Police officers can also develop acute stress disorder (ASD) as well as PTSD. Studies have pointed out a number of risk and/or protective factors that may modulate the severity of PTSD among police officers, which are categorized as pretraumatic, peritraumatic, and of course posttraumatic.

Research shows that police officers can be predisposed to developing PTSD by the cumulative exposure to job-related occupational stressors, critical incidents, and an increase in traumatic events on-the-job during the past year. Other research shows that junior police officers are more likely to develop PTSD due to their limited experience on the job. Another factor that seems to play a significant role in the development of PTSD among police officers is a history of personal traumas in their past.

Furthermore, the presence of a psychiatric history in the family, such as anxiety, mood disorders and/or substance abuse, was pointed out as a vulnerability factor for an increase in peritraumatic distress as a result of exposure to a critical incident, increasing the likelihood they would develop PTSD. Studies also showed that female police officers apparently are at the same risk of having PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event as male police officers.

Peritraumatic occurrences like dissociating, reacting emotionally and/or physically during the traumatic event, facing a threat to a partner’s life or physical well being, exposure to possible death, as well as the severity of the exposure make up the risk factors that cause PTSD among police officers. Additionally, one particular study discovered that police officers who performed unusual duties during a critical event, like rescuing individuals or doing recovery work on 9/11 at the World Trade Center for extended periods of time, which was outside their area of expertise, were at greater risk of developing symptoms of PTSD. There was only one study that examined peritraumatic protective factors and this study showed that police officers that got support from fellow officers and co-workers during or right after a traumatic incident, developed fewer symptoms of PTSD.

Research has identified a number of posttraumatic factors that can predict the development of PTSD among police officers. These factors include brief periods of time allowed to deal with and recover from the traumatic event, being unsatisfied with the level of support provided by the organization, and/or not enough social support from those outside the police force. Other risk factors are being physically injured in the incident, becoming depressed, along with negative events occurring in their life after the traumatic event. Many studies show that using strategies based on avoidance as a way of coping with traumatic events is counterproductive and is related to greater symptoms of PTSD.

This study1 looked at the risk and protective factors influencing the development of PTSD in a sample group of 83 officers. To evaluate the most recent on-the-job traumatic event and determine a diagnosis of full or partial PTSD and ASD, structured interviews were given to the participants. Police officers were evaluated from 5 to 15 days and continued being assessed at 1 month after the event, again in 3 months and once more at 1 year after the traumatic event.

Participants also took self-administered questionnaires to evaluate a number of possible predictors. The results revealed that PTSD among police officers was linked with a number of pretraumatic factors, such as number of children and emotional coping strategies, peritraumatic factors, like dissociation and emotional and physical reactions, and posttraumatic factors, such as the presence of ASD, being depressed, and seeking out psychological help via an employee assistance program and/or from the police union after the event.

Despite a job that puts them at high risk of being exposed to traumatic incidents, police officers seem to be very resilient when stressed. A number of different factors may explain this. For example, the selection criteria for new hires may mean that the ones hired for the job are most able to deal with the duties expected of police officers. Their training also helps them face stressful events and their job gives them plenty of experience dealing with many different kinds of dangerous situations. Another explanation for the low level of PTSD and ASD symptoms among this sample of police officers may be due to having free, efficient and confidential EAP available to them.  However, due to the variety of of pre and posttraumatic factors that officers are exposed to, those who are diagnosed with PTSD may require intensive support and treatment.

Because our treatment for PTSD and depression programs rely on evidence based practices, our Intensive Outpatient Program shares many common methods with other successful treatment methods.  The foundation of our treatment program for relies on the principles of the stages of change, cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused treatment, skills training and identifying repetitive dysfunctional behavioral relationship patterns to promote recovery from depression and other mental health disorders.  In fact, our Intensive Outpatient Program in Memphis, TN that has been proven to be effective in the treatment of these disorders in seven peer reviewed treatment outcome studies.  Unfortunately, less half of all individuals with any mental illness in Tennessee will receive mental health treatment and this figures is likely higher for police officers.  Our treatment center provides services to those who need more treatment than one hour a week, but less than 24 hour care, by providing three hours of treatment per day, three to five days per week, in an intensive outpatient setting. It is also important to keep in mind that women and men often experience depression differently and therefore the presence of depression may also appear differently based on gender. If you or a loved one is showing signs of depression or anxiety, including PTSD, they should be assessed by a trained mental health professional who can help design a treatment plan for depression that can result in recovery.  Treatment for depression and anxiety can be highly successful.  People who have completed our program have provide very high consumer satisfaction scores and reviewsCall us at 901-682-6136 to schedule an appointment.

1.Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder among police officers: A prospective study. Marchand A, Nadeau C, Beaulieu-Prévost D, Boyer R, Martin M. Psychol Trauma, 7(3):212-21. doi: 10.1037/a0038780.