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September 21, 2012
Research highlights risk of police officer stress

The daily psychological stresses experienced by police officers in their work put them at significantly higher risk than the general population for a variety of health problems. That’s the overall finding of a study of the Buffalo Police Department conducted over 5 years by a University of Buffalo (UB) researcher.

The research was published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health. It points to links between the daily stress of police work and obesity, suicide, sleeplessness, cancer, and general health disparities between police and the general population.

    Among other conclusions, the study of 464 police officers found that:

  • More than 25 percent had metabolic syndrome compared with 18.7 percent of the general employed population. (Metabolic syndrome includes symptoms like abdominal obesity, hypertension, and low HDL cholesterol.)
  • Organizational stress and lack of support were associated with metabolic syndrome in female, but not in male, police officers.
  • Female and male officers experiencing the highest level of self-reported stress were four and six times, respectively, more likely to have sleep problems.
  • Suicide rates were more than eight times higher in working officers than in those who had retired or left the police force.

A complicating factor is what researchers call the “culture of police work.” UB Professor John Violanti, chief investigator and former police officer, says, “The police culture doesn’t look favorably on people who have problems. Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you’re an officer, but you fear asking for help.”

That’s because officers who acknowledge problems may lose financial status and/or professional reputation. Violanti says the key is to change how officers are trained so that they recognize the signs of stress.

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