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Study: Many Officers Are Exposed to Traumatic Events, Few Seek Support

Police officers face an increased risk of exposure to traumatic events that could cause mental health challenges. But a lack of resources and resistance from officers are among the barriers to sufficient support, according to a study by Canadian professors Rose Ricciardelli of McMaster University and Matthew S. Johnston of Carleton College. 

Additionally, the study found staffing shortages and workload issues as additional barriers for officers, both of which have troubled many police departments across the U.S. since the pandemic. 

According to a 2021 survey from the Police Executive Research Forum, agencies had filled 93 percent of available positions, as hirings were down 5 percent, and resignations increased by 18 percent. Retirements saw the highest jump at 45 percent. Overall, larger departments bore the brunt of staffing losses 

The study addressed various mental health challenges for police, including symptoms of compromised mental health, and recommended solutions for the pressing police issue. 

Risk of Mental Health Disorders For Officers

According to a Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science study, which the report cites, there is a direct link between exposure to potentially psychologically traumatic events and operational stress injury, which the study uses to define physiological difficulties following a traumatic experience. 

The study found that Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and public safety personnel had over 11 diverse event exposures on average, with over 90 percent of officers reporting traumatic exposure to a severe transportation accident, physical assault, assault with a weapon, sudden violent death and sudden accidental death. 

A separate study cited in the report found that 46 percent of officers reported moderate stress levels, and only 4 percent of the sample reported low-stress levels. 

In connection with stress, they found that 30 percent of officers sampled reported high levels of depressed mood, 40 percent displayed moderate levels of depressed mood and the remaining 30 percent of police respondents noted low levels of depressed mood.

Overall, the report found over half of Canadian Mounted Police officers and 36.7 percent of municipal and provincial police officers tested positive for any mental health disorder.

Treatment and Barriers to Seeking Help

According to the study, 94.4 percent of Canadian police officers reported mental health services were available. But officers seldom utilized the services. 

The report found, 10 percent of officers neglected the services because of stigma, 9 percent since there was a lack of anonymity, and just above 5 percent for departmental distrust or the perceived ineffectiveness and just over 6 percent for poor quality of the service.

Researchers conducted interviews with 20 active serving members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police working in the province of British Columbia showed 90 percent of police respondents sought psychological support from a professional because of an “influential third party,” 85 percent due to their “ability to talk about life circumstances, self-awareness, and desire to change,” and 80 percent because of a “psychologist.” 

Yet, 75 percent of the respondents felt “hindered” because of the job culture. 

Solutions and Recommendations

 The report recommends additional research both in Canada and internationally.

 According to the study, new research should examine the changing and current mental health of police officers and ascertain the experiences affecting police officers’ well-being.

The report recommends one-on-one interviews that protect the confidentiality of officers and can pull from data the operational and organizational realities, shaping mental health and well-being among police.

“Quite simply, there is no health without mental health, and thus we must all work to promote and build the health of those we trust to serve and protect,” the report said. 

Read the full report, titled ‘Police Mental Health and Wellness’ here.

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