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Research Summaries

Posttraumatic effects in policing

Keywords: Help-seeking, Mental Health, Trauma

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Why was the study done?

Police officers experience stress from traumatic events and occupational stressors like shift work, red tape, and public examination. Research has shown that public safety personnel (PSP), like police officers, are at an increased risk for developing mental health disorders. There is not enough known about police help-seeking behaviours and coping strategies. What do officers who don’t seek help do to cope?

The current study examined the relationship between distress disclosure (officers revealing they struggle with a traumatic event), coping strategies (self-coping, social support seeking, and avoidant coping), and psychological impairment in police officers.

What was done in the study?

Participants of the study were officers from a large municipal police service in Ontario. For this study, the survey results from 76 officers who indicated that they had been traumatized by a potentially traumatic event in the last year were analyzed. All officers reported on their disclosure of distress, coping strategies, and work and social adjustment (a measure of psychological impairment).

What did we find out?

  • 39% of participants self-reported severe psychological impairment after a traumatic incident. That number increased to 71% when researchers looked at any level of impairment.
  • Participants who were more willing to disclose their distress engaged in more social support seeking.
  • Participants who used avoidant coping (tried to avoid thinking about the incident) or self-coping (relying on their own coping skills) had a greater psychological impairment.
  • Participants who chose to conceal or suppress their distress instead of disclosing it had higher psychological impairment levels.
  • More social support seeking was not related to a reduced psychological impairment.

Where do we go from here?

This study had a small sample from one large Ontario police force. It is important to expand the research before any conclusions are drawn. However, the findings support encouraging police officers to disclose their distress to reduce the possibility of psychological impairment. Based on the lack of a link between social support seeking and reduced impairment, it is key that when officers do disclose distress they receive helpful and constructive social support. Officers and organizations need to continue working to create an environment where disclosure and helpful support are the norms.

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


Original Study

Pitel, M.C., Ewles, G.B, Hausdorf, P.A. & Heffren, C.D.J. (2021). Posttraumatic effects in policing: Exploring disclosure, coping and social support. Police Practice and Research, 22:1.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Edited and Revised by Barootes, B.

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