"Repeated trauma exposure seriously impacts mental health"

30 January 2019

Che Donald

National Vice-Chair Ché Donald

Repeated exposure to trauma can have a serious detrimental effect on a police officer’s mental health - with roads policing officers at high risk, along with those who investigate child sexual exploitation and firearms officers.

National Vice-Chair Ché Donald gave a talk on trauma on day two of our Roads Policing Conference in Hinckley, Leicestershire, which illustrated the widespread nature of the issue and the urgent need for procedures to be put in place to protect officers.

Mr Donald shared a snapshot from the Police Federation’s 2018 survey on demand, capacity and welfare, which will be published in February, which shows that, during their policing career:

  • 97% of officers had come into contact with a serious physical assault
  • 99.5% had seen the body of somebody who had met a violent death
  • 84.8% had attended to victims of a serious road accident
  • And 66% had witnessed a violent or unnatural death, including a suicide.

Just under 62% of officers who responded to the survey had experienced one or more traumatic incidents within the last 12 months.  Mr Donald said: “Roads policing, child sexual exploitation and firearms are all high risk areas in terms of exposure to trauma. A College of Policing report last year on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in policing was a first – until now we’ve always relied on military studies.

“Unlike in the military, police officers do not have periods away from the front lines – you are the front lines. There are 18% fewer officers and policing has gone from a potentially proactive service to being a reactive service – we have officers going from one job to the next without the time to pause and let their brains process what they are experiencing.”

Mr Donald said two components of the brain – the amygdala and the hippocampus are key.  The former governs emotions and fight or flight reactions, serving as an alarm bell for the body, while the latter processes experiences and turns them into memories.

He continued: “If we’re going from job to job, not taking breaks and working in a pressure-cooker environment, then we are not giving the amygdala an opportunity to come down from a heightened state of alertness and this can lead to significant problems.” Issues include reliving traumatic experiences, mood changes, insomnia, fatigue and – in the worst cases – suicidal feelings.

Mr Donald, spoke movingly about a ‘hard as nails’ colleague who had been broken by the sight of a man who was fatally injured by machinery, which unlocked years of trauma – she sought counselling.  He hailed work being done by the University of Cambridge to compare groups of officers who have been given trauma coping mechanisms and those who haven’t.  “Roads policing officers pride themselves on ensuring their vehicles are clean, tyre pressures are right and their equipment is ready to go – but do we do that with ourselves?"

Find out more about our Roads Policing Conference