Police culture & mental health

How does police culture affect the decision-making process of officers following traumatic events asks Alan Campbell?

Loyalty is a double-edged sword. While police culture provides a network of supports, keeping quiet or being secretive about any difficulties or problems encountered following trauma is considered an expression and sign of loyalty to the organisation and police culture. However, remaining secretive can mask the pain of traumatic events and the need for help. As a consequence, PTSD is one now of the most widely recognised anxiety disorders experienced by police.

The masculine nature of first responder workplaces and their cultures can place high levels of social stigma on displays of personal weakness; for example, asking for a workplace accommodation for a mental or physical health concern. First responders are trained to focus on getting the job done, not showing any weakness during the process is part of how officers do their jobs. Taking time for self-care is often seen as a sign of weakness. This is more pronounced in junior police officers who have little prior exposure to trauma. These officers may feel extra pressure to conform to the cultural norm of police officers, where requesting mental health assistance may be viewed as a weakness.

In a Norwegian study of over 3,000 police officers, it was found 10 percent of those with anxious or depressive symptoms sought psychological assistance. The study refers to police concerns relating to anonymity, cost and access in respect of availing of supports rather than stigma alone. However, their study reported police officers had similar contact rates with psychological supports when compared to contact rates among the general population. It appears under-referral for mental distress is a feature of many populations and not just the police. However, issues relating to confidentiality are significant concerns for police officers.

The issue of stigma is also of relevance to the internal organisation culture within An Garda Síochána. Few officers would approach senior management as it would be considered career ending and is associated with the male character in general. This has been found in qualitative studies of veterans where when asked about the perceptions of a soldier being diagnosed with a mental illness they used words such as “embarrassing”, “career- killer”, and “sign of weakness” to describe seeking treatment for mental health problems. This is also true of police forces; the perception constitutes a culture of treatment resistance and is a significant barrier to seeking professional help.

A study in 2009 examined 141 police suicides across the U.S. in 2008 and found 64% of these officers showed no obvious indications of distress before taking their lives. This reflects police culture where officers disguise signs of psychological distress in a work environment that praises stoicism; mental illness is perceived as a weakness. Officers with mental illness may face bullying and ostracism and witnessing these behaviours can prevent other officers announcing their own mental health struggles as experience has taught them the detrimental career and personal consequences this has.

A stoic organisational culture adversely impacts on the mental health of first responders as it inhibits the progress of various preventative policies, further entrenching the existing cultural treatment resistance. Displays of stoic resilience are commonly associated with traditionally male gender role norms and are associated with poor mental health, including increased suicidality.

The unique work police officers do, may impact on their personal lives, making it difficult for them to balance work and private life. Police officers often use maladaptive emotional driven behaviours such as excessive alcohol intake for immediate stress relief. Research with Dutch police officers has demonstrated the significant association involving highly stressed police officers and the inappropriate use of force in confrontations. Chronic stress inhibits an officer overcoming his or her own stress and fear, which is required to deescalate situations in a calm and professional manner. The psychological distress extends to the families of police officers as demonstrated in research of Baltimore police officers in 2011, which revealed exposure to stressful events associated with police work influenced intimate partner violence. Officer-involved domestic violence is considered problematic, with police officers’ families having more elevated levels of domestic violence than society in general.

Combined, the effects of informal and formal culture within police organisations generate a great deal of stress in police officers occupational, social and family lives. Many officers are simply not cognisant of how police subculture and individual mental health affects the way they understand and respond to fellow police officers, family and society in general.

D/Garda Alan Campbell is a member of An Garda Síochána. The above is an edited extract from a post-graduate thesis he has undertaken entitled, “We don’t talk about that around here. How does police culture affect officers in An Garda Síochána in the aftermath of traumatic events?”

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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