25% of police officers have symptoms of mental health disorders, study finds

Oct. 7 (UPI) — One in four police officers in a major U.S. city screened for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation have symptoms of these mental health conditions, according to a survey published Wednesday by JAMA Network Open.

However, less than 20% of the affected officers said that they sought treatment for mental disorders in the past year, while 12% had a lifetime mental health diagnosis, the data showed.

The findings are based on a survey of working police officers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area conducted in January and February, the researchers said.

“There is a pressing need to systematically identify mental illness, an important occupational concern, and refer law enforcement officers to the appropriate healthcare services through broader screening policies,” study co-author Alaina M. Beauchamp told UPI.

“In addition to the lack of awareness of mental illness symptoms among law enforcement, substantial barriers to care [exist],” said Beauchamp, a doctoral student and research assistant at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Officers who experience symptoms of mental health disorders often are afraid to report them because of concerns they won’t remain confidential and that their peers will question whether they are fit for duty, Beauchamp said.

In addition, officers who seek treatment complain that mental health specialists are unable to “relate to occupational stressors,” she said.

“The men and women who serve as police officers are regular human beings like anyone else, trying their best to do a very difficult and sometimes dangerous job,” William J. Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, told UPI.

“And the stresses of what they have to deal with, not just physical danger, but the human misery, absolutely takes a toll over the months and years and decades of this job,” he said.

In response to what is seen as an emerging challenge in policing across the country, “unions have been at the forefront of seeking to provide mental healthcare for their members,” Johnson said.

Many unions and departments nationally have created “peer support units” to offer counseling and emotional support for officers dealing with mental health issues, he said.

For their study, Beauchamp and her colleagues surveyed 434 patrol officers working for a large police department.

Most — 82% — of the responding officers were male and in their 30s, suggesting they had been on the job for several years prior to taking part in the survey, the researchers said.

Twenty-six percent of the officers surveyed had positive screening results for symptoms of mental health disorders, with those who had been on the job for between five and 15 years up to three times as likely to do so, the data showed.

However, only 17% sought treatment for mental health issues, the researchers said.

Twelve percent of the responding officers said they had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, the most common being anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, or thoughts of suicide, according to the researchers.

“Addressing these concerns can start with departmental policy changes … to create a consistent connection to services and a reduction in the stigma surrounding the utilization of mental healthcare,” Beauchamp said.

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