Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Posttraumatic Distress and Growth: An Empirical Study of Police Officers

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Posttraumatic Distress and Growth: An Empirical Study of Police Officers

Article excerpt

Few studies have examined the experience of posttraumatic growth, among police officers following traumatic incidents. Additionally, research examining the relationship between posttraumatic distress (e.g., posttraumatic symptoms) and posttraumatic growth among various populations has been inconsistent. Consistent with the need to gain enhanced understanding in the area of posttraumatic growth, this study investigated the relation between posttraumatic distress (using the Impact of Events Scale-Revised) and posttraumatic growth (using the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory) among 183 police officers. Results of Pearson Correlations showed that posttraumatic distress was significantly and positively related to the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory full-scale and all sub-scale scores. Multiple regression analyses revealed that being involved in a duty-related shooting was the most significant predictor of posttraumatic growth. Implications for mental health providers are discussed.

KEYWORDS: posttraumatic distress; posttraumatic growth; empirical study of PTG


PoUce officers commonly experience high levels of occupational stress (Morash, Haarr, & Kwak, 2006; Stinchcomb, 2004). A common type of stressor experienced by police officers is acute stress derived from sudden events, usually of short duration, and it produces almost immediate psychological and physiological reactions. Traumatic or critical incidents are acute stressors that are dramatic, overwhelming, and can easily overcome a person's normal ability to cope (Mitchell & Bray, 1990). Traumarelated events experienced by officers may include physical injury while on duty, an officer-involved shooting, the death of a coworker, hostage situations, and officer suicides (Cross & Ashley, 2004).

In addition to being in situations in which they are at risk of being injured or killed, officers are often exposed to persons who have been injured or killed because of traffic accidents, murders, suicides, and other incidents. Exposure to dead bodies has been found to be a significant psychological stressor among officers when the incident is traumatic and unexpected (Chopko, 2008) as well as routine exposure common to the work of funeral directors (Gomila, 2007). Police officers who handle dead bodies can also be traumatized by visual, tactile, and olfactory sensations. Karlsson & Christianson (2003) note that officers report feelings of powerlessness and despair following incidents involving injury or death to children.

The acute stress of critical incidents or traumatic events can become the catalyst for the development of posttraumatic reactions, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). As a result of occupational traumatic exposure, it is estimated that 12% to 35% of police officers meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD at any given time (Boyle, 1987; Carlier, Lamberts, & Gersons, 1997; Maia et al., 2007). For example, a sample of police officers who where first responders to Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks were found to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD (Robbers & Jenkins, 2005). Police officers exposed to traumatic situations commonly experience long-lasting depression, fear when reminded of the event, guilt, tension, feelings of withdrawal, irritability, and nightmares (Karlsson & Christianson, 2003). Police officers involved in shootings report a variety of psychological reactions, such as disturbed time perception, sleep problems, fear of legal consequences, anger, elation, and bouts of crying (Stratton, 1984). Some reports indicate that without professional help up to 70% of officers involved in the use of deadly force leave the job within five years (Kureczka, 2002). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is often accompanied by another disorder such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse (Van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). …

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