“If a policeman tells his or her bosses that he or she is under stress, they laugh or retire him or her.”
The psychological stress experienced by police officers in their day-to-day work puts them in a delicate health position, with a higher risk
By Miguel Ayuso
The psychological stress experienced by police officers in their daily work puts them in a weak health position, with a higher risk of physical and mental disorders than the rest of the population. This is the general conclusion reached by a study from the University of Buffalo (New York), which over five years has closely studied the health profiles of 464 officers in the city. “This is one of the first studies to link the stress of a police officer to his or her psychological and health-related counterparts,” explains Dr John Violanti, professor of social and preventive medicine and lead author of the study. The research, published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, reveals the connection between daily police work – and the exposure to danger, human misery and death it brings – and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, suicide, insomnia and even cancer. The research came to the following conclusions:
- 40% of agents are obese, compared to 32% of the general population.
- More than 25% of the agents have metabolic syndrome, compared with 18.7% of the general population.
- After thirty years of service, agents have a higher risk of developing Hodgkin’s disease and brain cancer than the rest of the population.
- The suicide rate is eight times higher among active officers than among retired police officers (contrary to popular belief).
Problems caused by the “perverse shift system” The study has focused attention on shift work in the police, which is the cause of many of the officers’ health problems. According to the researchers, shift work contributes to an increase in metabolic syndrome, which is linked to a range of health problems such as abdominal obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and heart attacks. Shift work affects a large proportion of officers: half of the police officers in the study worked night shifts compared to 9% of the average American worker. José María Benito, spokesman for the Unified Police Union, the majority of Spanish police officers, considers that this study can be correctly extrapolated to Spain: “Police officers have many medical problems, especially because of the perverse shift system. Here we do not have data, because they are reserved, but many police officers go through medical courts because of health problems”. Manifesting health problems can be a problem. If you are a police officer, you are supposed to be a superman, and the officers are afraid to ask for help. The study shows not only the health problems that police officers have, but also how difficult it is for them to tell the commanders. Violanti is clear about this, and believes that the culture of police work goes against promoting healthy living: “The police environment does not look kindly on people with medical problems. If you are a police officer, you are supposed to be a superman, and officers are afraid to ask for help. Benito shares this opinion and assures that Spanish officers have many problems communicating in the body that they have medical problems, especially if they are psychological: “Many police officers suffer from stress, but they do not recognise it. It’s a problem to communicate with your boss that you have a problem. They may laugh at you or send you to a medical board, which may move you to a second job [administrative tasks that do not require physical effort] or retire you. It’s not easy to tell. At least among US police, as Violanti says, if you report heart problems you can be taken off patrol: “This is a real threat. If you ask for medical help, you can be disregarded for promotions, and your colleagues and superiors can embarrass you. Sometimes, they may even take your gun away from you. This is why there is so much fear of asking for help. In the opinion of the American researcher, police officers should be trained to prevent stress: “If you are told that the first time you see a dead or abused child, it is normal to have stressful feelings, you will be more prepared to deal with it. Besides, police officers should be trained to deal with it properly and offer help to officers in this situation. Benito shares this view but says that the situation in Spain is even worse: “Here the police have the same problems, but there is no counterbalance. They don’t have psychological cabinets, nor anyone to help them when they suffer from stress or depression, something which is present in other bodies”.