In a special edition of this month’s International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, Buffalo University researchers from the Buffalo Police Department have found that the daily psychological stress, which police offers have to endure on a daily basis, puts them at a considerably higher risk for various long-term physical and mental health effects – compared to those in the general population.

Principal investigator, John Violanti, PhD, a professor of social and preventive medicine in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions, commented on the 5-year long major scientific ‘Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS)’ study: “This is one of the first police population-based studies to test the association between the stress of being a police officer and psychological and health outcomes,” says funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Based on extensive and rigorous medical testing, the BCOPS study integrates a wide spectrum of psychological, physiological and subclinical stress measures and allows for correlations between work-related stress and stress biomarkers, which can potentially show adverse mental and physical health outcomes.

The study reveals links between the daily stress factors of police work and insomnia, suicide, obesity, cancer and various general health disparities which police offers suffer compared with the general population.

The study was initiated because of the assumption that the daily stress factors that police officers endure during their work, such as danger, high demands and exposure to human misery and death, are contributing factors to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health outcomes.

Violanti, a former New York State trooper, explained: “We wanted to know, in addition to stress, what are other contributing factors that lead to cardiovascular disease in police?”

Almost half, i.e. 46.9% of the officers who participated in the BCOPS study worked a non-day shift in comparison to only 9% of U.S. workers. One of their findings revealed that shift work is a contributing factor to an increase in metabolic syndrome, a combination of symptoms, such as abdominal obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Violanti comments: “We found that as a group, officers who work nights have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome than those who work day shifts.”

The study involved 464 police officers and the findings revealed that compared with 32% of the general population, 40% of police offers were obese and that over 25% suffered from metabolic syndrome compared with 18.7% of the general population. Furthermore, amongst those with the highest level of self-reported stress, female officers were 4-times more likely to experience a poor quality of sleep and male officers were six-times more likely to have a bad night’s sleep.

In addition, officers had a higher risk of developing Hodgkin’s lymphoma and brain cancer after 30 years of service. The team also found that the suicide rate amongst working officers was over 8-timers higher compared with retired police officers or those who left the police force.

Violanti says: “This finding challenges the common assumption that separated or retired officers are at increased risk for suicide.” However, he highlights that suicide prevention efforts are still an important requirement for both active and retired officers.

The results of the BCOPS show that police work alone can expose officers to adverse health outcome risks.

Violanti says: “Usually, health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, but here you have a health disparity caused by an occupation, highlighting the need to expand the definition of health disparity to include occupation as well.”

He adds that despite the fact that police officers have health insurance, the culture of police work often rules against the aim of improving health. Violanti explains: “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.”

He explains that police officers who admit suffering from a chronic disease or health problem may lose their financial status, professional reputation or both, continuing:

“If you have heart disease, you may not be allowed to go back on the street. That’s a real threat. If you go for mental health counseling, you may not be considered for promotions and you may be shamed by your peers and superiors. In some cases, your gun can be taken away, so there is a real fear of going for help.”

Violanti says that the answer could be to change officer training in police academies, to allow aspiring officers to understand the symptoms of stress and how to get them treated.

He adds:

“Police recruits need to receive inoculation training against stress. If I tell you that the first time you see a dead body or an abused child that it is normal to have feelings of stress, you will be better able to deal with them; exposure to this type of training inoculates you so that when it does happen, you will be better prepared. At the same time, middle and upper management in police departments need to be trained in how to accept officers who ask for help and how to make sure that officers are not afraid to ask for that help.”

Violanti and his team commend those who collaborated in the study, saying: “This study would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Buffalo Police Department administration, the Police Benevolent Association and the exceptional men and women of the Buffalo Police Department. Our sincere thanks to them, as we look forward to our follow-up study.”

Written by Petra Rattue