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Research Summaries

Differences in mental health disorder symptoms among police

Keywords: Anxiety, Depression, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Sex Differences, Sleep, Stress

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Why was the study done?

Research has shown that 34% of municipal/provincial police officers screen positive for at least one mental health disorder compared to 10% of the general population. Within this police group, women officers are more likely to experience symptoms.

Factors like increased sleep difficulties, higher stress, and low social support are related to the greater severity of mental disorder symptoms in both general and police populations. However, sex differences in the relationship between these risk factors and police mental health are not yet understood.

The current study’s goal was to determine if risk factors like sleep difficulties, high stress, and low social support mediate the sex differences seen in police mental disorder symptoms. It is expected that these risk factors will help to account for the higher number of positive mental disorder screens seen in women officers compared to men officers.

What was done in the study?

The data used in the current study was from a large, web-based, self-report survey that examined many aspects of public safety personnel (PSP) work and mental health. For the current study, researchers looked at the responses of 1174 municipal/ provincial police officers on measures of general anxiety disorder (GAD), major depressive disorder (MDD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder (PD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and alcohol use disorder (AUD). Measures of insomnia, police stress, and social support were included in the analyses.

What did we find out?

  • All participants who reported higher levels of mental disorder symptoms also reported lower perceived social support, higher police stress, and increased levels of sleep disturbance.
  • Women officers reported significantly higher perceived social support and sleep disturbances. Women officers also showed significantly higher levels of symptoms of GAD, MDD, PD, and SAD.
  • Men officers reported higher levels of AUD symptoms.
  • Sex was directly related to PTSD, MDD, GAD, PD, and SAD symptoms through a relationship with perceived social support levels and sleep quality but not with policing related stress. Women officers with higher social support levels reported fewer symptoms of PTSD, MDD, GAD, PD, and SAD, while women officers with lower sleep quality reported higher symptoms of those disorders.
  • The researchers found the expected relationship between sleep and social support. However, the results did not demonstrate the expected relationship between mental disorder symptoms and police stress. Unexpectedly, the researchers also found that women officers with higher perceived social support still reported higher mental disorder symptoms than their men counterparts.

Where do we go from here?

This study’s results offer new insight into the complex factors that lead to mental disorder symptoms in police and the differences between the men and women. It is important to note that self-report surveys have limitations, such as under- or over-reporting and one-time sampling. No relationship appeared between police stress and mental disorders. This finding could be a result of officers being accustomed to their job stress. While women officers with high perceived social support still reported higher levels of mental disorder symptoms, it is nevertheless important to keep in mind that the study did not examine perceived organizational support, which might have a more significant impact on mental health than perceived personal support. Overall, the study shows differences in mental disorder symptoms between the sexes, which might be mediated by social support and sleep quality. Further research should be done to improve our understanding of this complex question.

The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.

Original Study

Angehrn, A., Vig, K. D., Mason, J. E., Stelnicki, A. M., Shields, R. E., Asmundson, G. J. G., & Carleton, R. N. (2021). Sex differences in mental disorder symptoms among Canadian police officers: The mediating role of social support, stress, and sleep quality. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Edited & reviewed by Barootes, B & Angehrn, A.

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