The Effectiveness of Individual Wellness Counseling on the Wellness of Law Enforcement Officers

Article excerpt

To date, law enforcement is considered to be one of the most dangerous, stressful, and health-threatening occupations (Hem, Berg, & Ekeberg, 2001). Many researchers have suggested that life as an officer poses many hazards to the psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social self (Harpold & Feemster, 2002; Honig & White, 2000; Kannady, 1993; Kirschman, 1997; Mashburn, 1993; Mohandie & Hatcher, 1999; Violanti, 1995, 1999). Law enforcement officers are more vulnerable to interpersonal problems, suicide, alcoholism, drug use, depression, anxiety, internal stress, posttraumatic stress symptoms, impulsivity, divorce, domestic violence, and marital discord when compared with the general population (Cummings, 1996; Lott, 1995; Violanti, 1999). Furthermore, research indicates that law enforcement officers are susceptible to lifestyle-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, ulcers, cirrhosis, and chronic low back pain (Vena, Violanti, Marshall, & Fiedler, 1986).

There is considerable empirical evidence that suggests that law enforcement officers are at an increased risk for premature death and morbidity consequent to unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, including poor physical fitness and sedentary habits, poor nutrition, irregular sleep habits and sleep disturbances, and maladaptive coping behaviors such as excessive drinking and tobacco use (Arliss, 1991; Bower, 2002; Mohandie & Hatcher, 1999; Vena et al., 1986; Violanti, Marshall, & Howe, 1985).

One study in particular has shed light on the destructive coping behaviors that often contribute to ill health among law enforcement officers (Richmond, Wodak, Kehoe, & Heather, 1998). The study was conducted in 1998 to investigate the prevalence of risky health behaviors among 852 police officers in New South Wales. In that study, five lifestyle behaviors (alcohol consumption, tobacco use, inadequate exercise, perception of overweight, and stress symptoms) were examined. The results indicated that 83% of the police officers had at least one unhealthy lifestyle behavior and 19% had three to five unhealthy behaviors. Of particular concern were the reported high levels of alcohol consumption and binge drinking. The results revealed that, for the male officers, 48% consumed high levels of alcohol, 27% used nicotine, 21% led sedentary lifestyles, 46% reported being overweight, and 12% reported the presence of moderate to severe symptoms of stress. Of the female officers, 40% reported high-level consumption of alcohol, 32% used nicotine, 24% led sedentary lifestyles, 47% reported being overweight, and 15% reported the presence of moderate to severe symptoms of stress.

* Stress Among Law Enforcement Officers

Many studies have investigated stress in law enforcement (Violanti, 1983; Violanti et al., 1985). As many as 87% of all emergency service personnel have experienced critical incident stress at least once during their professional service (Pierson, 1989). Critical incident stress may occur when officers are exposed to an unexpected critical incident that challenges and threatens their sense of safety, mortality, and perceived ability to effectively cope with the traumatic incident. Critical incident stress is characterized as a debilitating syndrome that can seriously jeopardize officers' job performance as well as destroy their personal lives; if left unrecognized and untreated, it can lead to permanent emotional trauma and psychological problems, as well as job suspension, dismissal, or, in severe circumstances, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and law enforcement suicide (Kirschman, 1997; Pierson, 1989).

Law enforcement officers are susceptible to developing PTSD after being involved in a catastrophic, critical incident or after repeated, prolonged exposure to chronic stress (Brown, 2003). PTSD is a psychological disorder that affects approximately 15% of all emergency service workers (Kirschman, 1997). …


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