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One in five police personnel suffering from PTSD, research reveals

Campaigners warn lack of unified approach by forces has created a 'postcode lottery' in support
Published - 09/05/2019 By - Nick Hudson - Police Oracle

A landmark study exposes for the first time in the UK the alarming scale of suffering behind the “cultural trope of the burnt-out copper who has seen too much”.

Nearly one fifth of police officers and staff suffer with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder with nine out of 10 exposed to the condition, the survey suggests.

Experts have warned of a "clinical and public sector crisis" after a survey of nearly 17,000 serving officers and operational staff indicated rates of PTSD were nearly five times higher than the wider population.

Carried out by a team at the University of Cambridge, the research's early findings also suggest that two thirds of those suffering from the disorder were unaware they had the condition.

Campaigners have warned the lack of a unified approach by forces has created a "postcode lottery" in support and called for a national policing mental health strategy to be established.

Dr Jess Miller, a sociologist who led the research, said the levels of PTSD the study uncovered were "alarming" and warned a "stiff upper lip attitude" was inappropriate for modern policing.

"For the first time in the UK we can see behind the cultural trope of the burnt-out copper who has seen too much. This is a clinical and public sector crisis," she said.

"Dealing with disturbing experiences is a defining part of policing, but employees have a right to expect resources to protect them from the impact of daily trauma exposure. Without such resources in place, the cost to policing and public safety will just mount up."

Serving officers across all ranks throughout the UK, and operational staff such as emergency call operators and digital image specialists took part in the survey.

Carried out across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland during autumn last year, it found 90 per cent of police workers had been exposed to trauma.

One in five of those officers and staff reported experiencing either PTSD or Complex PTSD, a more severe form of the disorder, in the four weeks prior to being surveyed.

"Over half of our respondents said they had insufficient time to process incidents before being sent back out on the next call," Dr Miller said.

"A stiff upper lip attitude will not work in contemporary policing.

"Without decent interventions and monitoring for trauma impact, and a national conversation involving the Home Office and Department of Health, the alarming levels of PTSD our study has uncovered will stay the same."

Police Care UK has called for a national policing mental health strategy to be put in place.

The charity's chief executive, Gill Scott-Moore, said: "There is no comprehensive strategy to tackle the issue of mental health in policing, and that has to change.

"The service has real challenges around recognising and responding to the signs and symptoms of trauma exposure and is heavily reliant upon generic NHS provision that isn't equipped for the specialist treatment needed."

The news comes two years after a similar study by mental health charity Mind revealed workplace wellbeing support is worse in police forces and other public sector work places than in the private sector. 

The charity surveyed more than 12,000 employees across the public and private sectors and found a higher prevalence of mental health problems in the public sector, as well as a lack of support available when people do speak up.

Mind’s survey found that public sector workers, including police officers, were over a third more likely to say their mental health was poor than their peers in the private sector and far more likely to say they have felt anxious at work in the last month.

Police Oracle's own BluePrint campaign is calling on the government to meet its obligation of protecting our officers both in the job and when they have been forced out of the service because of physical injuries or mental trauma.

Our research has previously revealed nearly two-thirds of officers believe their workload is too high.

The 60 per cent statistic was revealed in a survey which illustrates how officers face an increase in demand which is affecting the quality of their work. Four in five respondents acknowledged experiencing feelings of stress, low mood, anxiety, or other mental health and wellbeing difficulties.

Earlier this month the College of Policing unveiled the National Police Wellbeing Service, aimed at improving mental and physical health support for officers and staff.

The new service has been developed using a £7.5 million investment from the Home Office's Police Transformation Fund, and has been overseen by the College with input from NPCC lead for Wellbeing Lancashire Chief Constable Andy Rhodes.

With 21,000 fewer police personnel on the front line than in 2010, Police Federation vice chairman Che Donald said officers have “never felt so vulnerable as they are often working in highly stressful fast-moving environments along with being exposed to horrific situations which takes its toll”.

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