I am currently completing my doctoral thesis in the area of stress, trauma and psychological growth.
My professional motivation to undertake this study stemmed from previous research I conducted in the field of Investigative and Forensic Psychology, in which I explored the management of major critical incidents by U.K. emergency services. The data I analysed was collected from a large, multiagency, live training exercise for U.K. blue light services, which consisted of a train derailing from its tracks, crashing into a building, colliding into numerous vehicles and power lines and causing a bus to crash into an adult learning centre. This resulted in U.K. Police, Ambulance and Fire and Rescue Services arriving at the scene, following the official declaration of a major incident.
During every stage of my research I became curious about the psychological effects (positive or negative) of such potentially stressful and traumatic experiences on emergency services personnel, which led to my current interest in exploring the experiences of operational stress and growth among police officers, since they are generally the first responders to arrive at the scene of a critical incident.
In fact, police officers are regularly exposed to highly stressful, dangerous, uncertain environments as part of their daily work, making their role increasingly complex and emotionally demanding. In the U.K. police officers need to manage this challenging function in the context of continual structural changes and cuts in resources, which have recently led to dramatic reductions in the numbers of officers and staff in the police service.
Overall, the routinely stressful and potentially traumatic situations faced by police officers often place them under regular direct exposure to potentially life-threatening situations in addition to indirect exposure to psychological distress, when having to observe the suffering of others. This has been described by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work as ‘emotional overstrain’, due to the enormous psychological demands that police officers face when burdened with the responsibility for the lives of others.
The detrimental psychological effects of policing have been highlighted in recent media coverage in reports regarding the number of police officers in the UK taking long-term sick leave (of around 28 to 29 days), which have increased by 12 per cent between 2010-2011 and 2014-2015. Moreover, the number of officers taking time off for mental health reasons is reported as having risen by 35 per cent in the last five years. As at 31 March 2017, there were 4,426 police officers on recuperative duties, and 4,111 on adjusted/restricted duties in the 43 police forces in England and Wales.
Furthermore, scoping research by Mind (2016) suggests that the disproportionate levels of emergency services personnel affected by mental health difficulties may also be due to the lack of opportunities for receiving informal support and to the prevalence of mental health stigma in the workplace towards seeking support.
The statistics outlined above suggest that the stressful and adverse experiences, which are potentially a necessary part of the working lives of police officers, tend to result in a high degree of physical and psychological distress.
My current research therefore focuses on how retired police officers look back at their experiences of cumulative, operational stress and adverse events in their jobs, whilst also exploring how officers feel they may have changed or developed from these experiences. This remains a valuable, but under researched area, which may provide insight into how police officers’ wellbeing could be further supported in the U.K.
The majority of research examining the impact of adverse experiences on police officers has been rooted in the perspective of a pathological model that highlights the detrimental effects of stress or trauma on an officer’s functioning.
However, over the past decade researchers and practitioners have begun to delve into the positive changes or growth that can, in fact, arise following adverse experiences. What I thus aim to accomplish with my research is to move away from the medicalisation of stress and towards a more humanistic approach to human distress and growth in order to understand the lived experience of officers as they struggle to make meaning of adversity. This may lead to further clinical recommendations for mental health interventions that could not only focus on alleviating symptoms but on promoting growth and helping individuals lead more fulfilling lives.
When adversity strikes, people often feel that at least some part of them – be it their views of the world, their sense of themselves, their relationships – has been smashed. Those who try to put their lives back together exactly as they were remain fractured and vulnerable. But those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living. These changes do not necessarily mean that the person will be entirely free of the memories of what has happened to them, the grief they experience or other forms of distress, but that they live their lives more meaningfully in the light of what happened.