THE EFFECTS OF STRESS ON POLICE OFFICERS
Not much good news here.
The following is the text of a speech give by Dan Goldfarb to a group of union delegates on the impact stress can have on their men.
There has been a lot of research on the negative effects of stress on people in general. I am sure you know that police work is one of the top rated professions for job stress next to air traffic controllers and dentists. A good way to start this presentation, I think, is to give a good working definition of police stress I have seen the following definition around enough to realize that many who are reading this are already familiar with this excellent definition. What I like about the following definition is that it is not just scientific, but gives an idea of what stress is, relates very well to the police job, and can even give us an idea of what cops may need to do to help themselves with stress. Okay, here it is:
That feeling and desire along with the ensuing bodily effects, experienced by a person who has a strong and true longing to choke the living shit out of someone who desperately deserves it, but you can't.
Now, while this may sound funny there is a real element of truth to it. An element of truth that says an awful lot about police work. And that is the part of the definition "......BUT YOU CAN'T". Police work, by it's very nature, calls for an incredible amount of restraint. Continual restraint. Draining restraint. It is stressful. The demands on police officers to show ever greater restraint have been increasing over the years, and not so coincidentally has the effects of stress on police work. With the recent attention that police suicide has received in the media there have been a number of reviews on police suicide. I came across an interesting statistic. Between 1934 and 1960 police suicide rates were half that of the general population. Between 1980 to the present, suicide rates in some departments almost approach double! What is the difference? YOU CAN'T CHOKE EM ANYMORE! Street justice is all but gone. Everyone has video cameras. The media gets off on putting down cops. Politicians continue to pander to the public with new laws and restrictions for police officers that further tie their hands, and YOU CAN'T CHOKE ANYONE WITH YOUR HANDS TIED! So you start to feel that you're choking yourself.
If we take a quick overview of police work and look at the research of what the biggest stressors are, we find:
Interestingly, physical danger is ranked low on the list of stressors by police officers!
- Killing someone in the line of duty.
- Having you partner killed in the line of duty.
- Lack of support by the department/bosses.
- Shiftwork and disruption of family time/family rituals.
- The daily grind of dealing with the stupidity of the public, or the "asshole factor".
One of the worst effects of stress on police officers is of course suicide. We are becoming all too familiar with police suicide especially with the attention the media has given New York City. Twice as many police officers die by their own hand as do in the line of duty!
A study of 2376 Buffalo NY police officers found that compared to the white male population police officers had higher mortality rates for cancer, suicide, and heart disease. The suggested reason: Higher stress levels.
What is going on? Every study done points to the higher levels of stress police officers face, but what form does that stress take? With suicide there seem to be four factors:
1. Divorce. 2.Alcohol - not alcoholism. That was one of the early theories. But in actuality it was the use of alcohol right before the act to "get up the nerve". 3. Depression. 4. A failure to get help. (Most officers who commit suicide have no history of having sought counseling).
All four factors are symptoms that can stem from an officer's stress levels. Police suicide is more directly related to relationship problems than to job stress! Of the last 14 suicides among the police officers in New York City, 12, or 86%, had to due with divorce or relationship breakup.
Police officers going through a divorce are 5 times more likely to commit suicide that and officer in a stable marriage! Relationship problems, however, are highly related to job stress. The circle is complete!
If we consider that officers have an important relationship with their department, we can examine the effect of that relationship gone bad. Officers who get in serious trouble on the job, suspended or facing termination, are 7 times more likely to commit suicide. (Apparently cops like their jobs better than their wives).
So we see that stress has a profound effect on police officers lives, especially their home lives. Studies have called police work a "high risk lifestyle". Not high risk in terms of the physical dangers of the job, but a high risk in terms of developing attitudinal problems, behavioral problems, and intimacy and relationship problems. So you learn something about the effects of police work. You learn if you ask the average cop "Hey, what's been the scariest experience during your police career?" They will answer "My first marriage!"
The national divorce rate is 50%. All research shows police suffer a substantially higher divorce rate with estimates ranging from 60 to 75%. One of the casualties of police work is often the marriage. A police marriage, after all, is like a hurricane. A lot of sucking and blowing in the begging but in the end you lose your house. One poor (literally) officer I knew who had a few marriages gone bad told me, "If I ever decide to marry again, I'm just gonna find a woman I don't like very much and buy her a house".
As a police officer progresses in his/her career is the eroding of the attitudes. As noted above, police work presents a high risk of developing attitudinal problems. As a police officer's career progresses, they become more cynical. No one questions this anymore. The only questions in the research are how cynical and how soon. Some studies suggest that cynicism can be seen developing in the academy and just gets worse from there.
So, what is the problem with becoming cynical? Life is like an airplane. An airplane has four forces working on it. Gravity pulls it down. But the wings can produce lift, which picks it up. The engines produce thrust. But the air around the plane produces drag or resistance. In order to fly a pilot will take the plane, point it into the greatest amount of resistance (into the wind), and add the maximum amount of thrust. Maximum thrust into maximum resistance produces lift. Once airborne your height or elevation is controlled by attitude. If you pull back on the stick the nose of the plane points up. You have a positive attitude and will climb. If you push the stick forward you have a negative attitude and will fall. Fall far enough and you will crash.
The problem with cynicism is that destroys all attitude. All attitude becomes negative and thus the cynic will eventually crash. Cops more than people in any other profession are in continual danger of becoming cynics. In continual danger of crashing!
It is, I think, an officers job and duty (especially to his family) not to crash. Too much is at stake. Staying psychologically fit means committing to take care of yourself. It takes work. The greater the stress, the greater the need to apply maximum thrust into this resistance! For the average officer possibly the hardest job of staying healthy is to admit that he/she has a problem. The second hardest feat is the willingness to get help. I have often marveled at how police officers, whose careers are centered on helping others, have so much trouble accepting help. On the other hand, I have also marveled at the difficult jobs the officers I have worked with have undertaken and succeeded at. Both on and off the job.
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