Thin blue line stretched further by stress numbers
Two police officers a day, many in senior roles, have been referred for trauma counselling over the past five years.
Numbers obtained under the Official Information Act show last year's 983 referrals were almost double the 2010 rate, which police put down to the Christchurch earthquakes.
Most referrals over the five-year period stemmed from experiencing death or violence, and it was not only among inexperienced officers, with a quarter of those who saw a psychologist at the sergeant rank or above, and one-in-eight senior sergeants.
Officers underwent mandatory one-on-one sessions with a clinical psychologist when they returned home after Christchurch, but Police Association president Greg O'Connor said, while that was fine, it was the daily grind of being "on duty 24 hours a day” that caused the most stress.
He was not surprised experienced officers were struggling because of the way the job had changed.
“Everything you do is watched. There are people with cellphones and cameras, the Independent Police Conduct Authority, and the media. The consequences of getting it wrong are so great.”
And although he thought the number of officers attending trauma counselling was high, he still worried “those who really need it, don't ask for it”.
A researcher into the effects of violence and trauma on mental health said compulsory meetings could do more harm than good. Auckland University Lion Foundation emergency medicine chair Professor Gregory Luke Larkin said talking about experiences too soon could make them more real and damaging.
“All human suffering is a story told from a selfish perspective,” he said.
“The more we tell that story, the more real it becomes, and it starts growing.”
Larkin has researched the impact of the 9/11 terror attacks, and said there could be long-term costs ahead.
“In the throes of a national crisis your first instinct is survival, and that tends to eclipse workplace anxiety or trouble with the spouse.”
Once reality kicked in, which happened at different times for different people, it could result in post-traumatic stress disorder or, more commonly, depression.
Police were often better mentally equipped to deal with disaster and the team environment helped, but he said people who needed help might not seek it if it was not seen as socially acceptable among their group.
Police wellness and safety adviser Stu Duncan said the automatic referrals were a “proactive” measure.
Officers normally received three trauma counselling sessions but, after the quake, many had one session before opting out. That saw overall spending on psychological services fall, despite the increase in numbers.
He said police were well-equipped to deal with disaster fallout, and that there had been a mindshift among officers away from a view that counselling was a sign of weakness.
Despite the spike, Duncan described the numbers as “stagnant” and expected a drop in 2012 figures. While he accepted an average of two officers a day sounded high, in the context of an 11,000-strong force, it was about 6.5 per cent
At its peak in 2009, trauma counselling cost the police $360,000, but that fell by more than $100,000 in the two following years, although Duncan said police were not actively looking to curtail spending.
“Counselling is much more cost-effective than having them off work.”
Officers using the Employee Assistance Programme for “more personal problems” are not included in the numbers.
In 2000 police video operator George Brickell was awarded $242,000 for post-traumatic stress disorder after 15 years' filming crime scenes.
The Sunday Star-Times sought data on the number of officers on stress leave, but police said it was recorded as sick leave and could not be broken out.
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