Trauma impact is much more prevalent in policing than we realise

Beckett Frith
Beckett Frith

Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work

Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety disorder which can develop after somebody has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. It can cause problems with your mood, your mental wellbeing, your relationships and even your physical health. This Wednesday is Emergency Services Day, an annual event to show support for those who work and volunteer across all emergency services. Beckett Frith asks Dr Jess Miller, the Director of Research for Police Care UK Police Care UK Police Care UK are a charity for serving and veteran police officers and staff, volunteers, and their families who have View organisation, and a Research Associate and Principle Investigator at the University of Cambridge, about how the condition affects police officers, and what can be done to help.

How prevalent is PTSD in the UK’s police force? 

According to our research, about two-thirds of officers felt that they had some sort of psychological problem which was a direct result of police work; however, they were just going to work as usual. Nearly three quarters of those who had PTSD weren’t aware of it. What is more, of those without PTSD, nearly a third were experiencing high levels of flashbacks, avoidance and feeling an exaggerated threat response -which are all actually PTSD symptoms, suggesting trauma impact is much more prevalent in everyday policing than we realise.

Half also reported that they were experience fatigue, anxiety​Managing stress and anxiety (Police) PDF Mind have created this PDF booklet to explore some of the causes of stress and anxiety for the police force, and have brought together some tips to help you cope better at work.Free By: Mind View resource or sleep disturbances​Sleep enablers and preventers PDF This one-page PDF offers advice on what behaviours can help you to have a good night's sleep, and which habits you might want to change.Free By: Unilever View resource, so this is a huge problem within our police forces.

The public could be inadvertently contributing to the problem

Is this an issue that becomes worse when public sympathy is low?  

One of the predictors of PTSD that our research has found is that it is linked to humiliation. We found a strong correlation between police officers who reported that they have felt humiliated or had experienced humiliating behaviours and them going on to develop PTSD and Complex PTSDComplex post-traumatic stress disorderComplex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD, sometimes abbreviated to c-PTSD or CPTSD) is a condition where you experience some symptoms of PTSD along with some additional symptoms. These can include difficulty controlling your emotions, suicidal feelings, or avoiding friendships and...Find out more

That’s a worry if we think about public sympathy, as if we reach a point where officers feel humiliated doing their work then the public could be inadvertently contributing to the problem.

A police officer on duty in London.

How can police forces help those who are experiencing PTSD? 

We have to understand that PTSD is not a life sentence. It can be treated, and people can in fact become more resilient and compassionate if treated effectively, once they come through it. If we can have more open, honest conversations​Conversations about painful subjects Web page Trauma can overwhelm someone's ability to cope. This guide is designed to help NHS line managers encourage their staff open up about potentially traumatic things they have seen at work.Free By: NHS England and NHS Improvement View resource and leaders or chiefs can stand up in front of officers and share their own experiences of trauma impact, then hopefully people will see that this doesn’t need to be brushed it under the carpet – trauma experience on the job can actually make us more resilient longer term – if it’s managed well and with confidence.

The idea that police officers who acknowledge that there are knocks on the job aren’t ‘up to the job’ or anything like that is so outdated. It’s the nature of the trauma they are being exposed to, and the relentlessness of it – and a lack of resources means they don’t have the time to decompress after one traumatic incident before being exposed to the next. It’s just a reality of the job. It’s not actually about ‘them’.

We know all brains need to be looked after

How can those of us who don’t work for police forces help? 

We’re hoping that by explaining a little bit more about how it feels to do the role, we might help the public understand that these people are human and they’re doing a public service – and that a lot of them are a lot more emotionally articulate and capable of managing compassion than the rest of us put together.

I think the most important thing we can do right now is to allow police officers to talk about what policing is like at the moment, and for us to listen. The only way things are going to improve is for us to have a conversation. At Police Care UK, we know all brains need to be looked after, and policing is no different.

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