Arash Javanbakht, associate professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University, spoke to us about some of the challenges and solutions of dealing with trauma in the police force.
Sputnik: What are some of the challenges and solutions of dealing with trauma in the police force?
Professor Arash Javanbakht: So, in terms of challenges, I mean, challenge number one, which is a part of the job, is chronicity and repetition of exposure to trauma, because it's not like I have just one horrible car accident and then the rest of my life is good - for these people, on a routine basis, on a day-to-day basis, they have to go to scenes where they can see horrible things or be exposed to serious death or injury of people or even risk or threat to themselves and their colleagues. So that's one challenge.
And the other one, which is very important, is the issue of stigma, basically not accepting the fact that there's something wrong, feeling that if I agree that I need help, that's a vulnerability, that's a weakness. Some of it is understandable in the context of the job they have, basically, the police are in a role of "tough men and women" who have to be in an authority and control position and agreeing to having vulnerability may be seen as weakness in themselves, their colleagues, or their superiors. While in reality, basically, this is how humans react to horrible, terrible life experiences and trauma. This stigma will then prevent admitting to need to help and seeking it and then trying to use other ways of basically trying to self-medicate, such as substance use.
Sputnik: Is there any way that we can reduce the effects of trauma?
Professor Arash Javanbakht: So trauma is always there, I mean, that is part of the job. And what we can do is to reduce the impact of trauma, which would be part of training. Training the forces about trauma, about what it does to them, about what are the red flags. Because, let's say when I am in a traumatic situation, a difficult high stress situation, I see my heart is pounding fast, and I get sweaty, it may be hard for me to understand what's happening to me and even see this as a sign of weakness rather than understanding this is the normal human body reaction to trauma. Knowing about the red flags, when I need to seek help, because the sooner, the earlier we catch trauma's impacts, the better and faster we can address them and treat them.
We talked about exercise, we know that regular cardio exercise improves, basically brain health, we see growth in different areas of the brain. So having a healthy lifestyle, catching the impact early and early intervention; basically providing mental health services, easy access to mental health services, especially for people like the law enforcement, to those in law enforcement who have very difficult life and work schedules.
Sputnik: Is there any evidence that the situation has become worse in recent years?
Professor Arash Javanbakht: So there's some data out of the US showing an increased rate of suicide among police officers over the past few years. But when it comes to trauma, let's say that the only consequence of trauma is not PTSD. PTSD is one big one - that people will have flashbacks and nightmares and recurrent intrusive memories and a lot of other symptoms. Depression is also a consequence, high anxiety is a consequence, substance use is a consequence, the problem is that it's very hard to know. I am not aware of data that basically shows what is the clear impact year-by-year.
And a big reason is that, let's say for the veterans, we have a Veterans Affairs health system where it is easy to track what's happening. We don't have such a thing with the police. So the only data I'm aware of has been rising rates of suicide; but of course, I can understand that especially with the current pandemic the stress is higher, because not only is stress higher for each of the civilians, higher stress of course increases the impact of trauma or even previous trauma, but also we know in frontline workers, such as the health care workers, EMT personnel and law enforcement who are involved in care and work around the care of critical patients, there is much more stress and I'm expecting to see a worsening of the situation.
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