Policing is dangerous work, however one of the biggest dangers is what happens once the job is done.
With the constant exposure to traumatic situations and people in distress, the responsibility of protecting the lives of the public, as well as long and irregular hours; stress has become a significant problem in Australia’s police services.
While stress is by no means permanent, if left untreated, can lead to high blood pressure, insomnia, increased levels of destructive stress hormones, heart problems, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sadly, suicide.
A 2015 report by the Australian Physiological Society revealed people who report higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms and distress are more likely to gamble, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and take recreational drugs.
However stress is rarely confined to a personal battle. Family, friends and colleagues can also suffer as the victim often retreats, or lashes out at those closest to them. Another major repercussion of stress in law enforcement is the inability to perform at the level expected of the department and the subsequent risk of putting colleagues in danger because of poor decision making.
There has been a heightened sense of awareness in the industry of late regarding police and mental health, and this includes breaking down the “suck it up” and “don’t speak up” stigma rife in many departments.
In Australia, the most recent figures reveal 62 police suicides in the years between 2000 and 2012. This is a rate of approximately 11.4 suicides per 100,000. Meanwhile, figures released in 2015 estimate one emergency service worker took their own life every six weeks.
Ways to combat police-work related stress
While the nature of the job involves high pressure and traumatic situations, there are steps individuals can take to counteract the stress of the day to day work in the force.
• Making healthy food choices and avoiding fast food
• Taking time away from work to maintain healthy work-life balance
• Setting aside time for exercise and leisure activities
• Allocate time to check up on fellow officers
• Sharing the workload and reducing the amount of overtime.
Beyond these points, it is important that officers are able to open up and discuss stress, resilience and mental strength. It’s also important that police officers know that there are resources available to them that are not attached to their departments, but that understand the specifics of the job and all it entails.
Blue HOPE is a not-for-profit organisation staffed by people with policing experience to support police officers and their families to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and other mental health issues.
The organisation understands that some officers may be reluctant to open up about stress to in-house support units because of concerns that their confidences will be shared with management. This is especially true if management itself or departmental practice is a cause of the stress.
Blue HOPE’s main aim is to raise awareness of police suicide and to provide a 24 hour hotline service for officers, both current and former.
In 2016, Blue HOPE launched an anonymous Help Line and can be contacted on 1300 00 BLUE (2583).