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Stress Creates Significant Health Risks for Police Officers

Update Date: Jul 10, 2012 02:33 PM EDT

Police officers are at an extremely greater risk of having long term physical and mental issues. A new five-year study conducted by a University at Buffalo researcher has concluded that the "daily psychological stresses that police officers experience in their work put them at significantly higher risk than the general population for a host of long-term physical and mental health effects."

Principal Investigator John Violanti said this study is the first of its kind.

"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," Violanti said. "We wanted to know, in addition to stress, what are other contributing factors that lead to cardiovascular disease in police?"

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and will be published in a special issue of the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health.

Violanti said daily stressors of police work seemed to be connected to obesity, suicide, sleeplessness and cancer in police officers and the general population.

Nearly 500 police officers were used for the study, which revealed several findings. The study found that 40 percent of the officers were obese, compared with 32 percent of the general population; more than 25 percent of the officers had metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms believed to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, versus nearly 19 percent of the general population; female and male officers experiencing the highest level of self-reported stress were four- and six-times more likely to have poor sleep quality, respectively; officers were at increased risk of developing Hodgkin's lymphoma and brain cancer after 30 years of service; and suicide rates were more than eight times higher in working officers than they were in officers who had retired or left the police force.

The study also found that shift work is a contributing factor to an increase in abdominal obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and stroke. About 50 percent of officers in the study worked a non-day shift compared to just 9 percent of U.S. workers.

"Usually, health disparities are defined by socioeconomic and ethnic factors, but here you have a health disparity caused by an occupation," Violanti said.  "This finding challenges the common assumption that separated or retired officers are at increased risk for suicide," Violanti said.

He also added that the need for suicide prevention efforts remains important for both active and retired officers.

"The police culture doesn't look favorably on people who have problems," Violanti said. "Not only are you supposed to be superhuman if you're an officer, but you fear asking for help.  Police officers who reveal that they suffer from a chronic disease or health problem may lose financial status, professional reputation or both. 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."

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