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Police face higher health risks: UBuffalo study

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Due to stressful nature of police work, law enforcement officers face higher risks of obesity, suicide, sleeplessness and cancer, according to a new study from a University at Buffalo (UB) professor who has a unique insight into the issue.

“I was a New York State trooper for about 23 years in my previous days,” says John Violanti, a professor of social and preventive medicine in UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions. “During that amount of time I seen a lot of things.”  

'Moments of sheer terror'

Toward the end of his two decades as a cop, Violanti earned his PhD while on the job. Now, he uses his expertise to study the impact of stress on modern day police .

“In my career as a police officer, things were not as complex as they are now,” he says.

Officers today face increased scrutiny from the public, are often filmed while on the job and face stronger firepower on the streets. These and other factors make it hard to unplug from the job, says Violanti.

“Take for example, when you go to work in the morning. Probably one of the first things you do is put on your bulletproof vest,” he says. “It could be anything from seeing dead bodies to dealing with abused kids, to seeing suicides, to seeing people in terrible traffic accidents to seeing assaulted people. And these things are commonplace in the everyday activity of officers.”

But police work can also be overly routine and even boring, with a bevy of downtime and uneasy anticipation, says Violanti.

“And then you have those few moments when you have sheer terror,” he says.

All of this can add up to break the down the mind and body, making it more susceptible to serious ailments.

A dangerous job

While negative health effects associated with police work have been suspected through anecdotal evidence for decades, Violanti’s most recent study, titled “Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS),” confirms it. Over the past five years, researchers interviewed more than 460 officers in western New York about their health.

The results are dramatic. Police officers were also more likely to be obese than the general population. Officers were four to six times more likely to have trouble sleeping because of stress. And those in law enforcement were also at increased risk of developing Hodgkin's lymphoma and brain cancer.

Results also showed officers are more likely to commit suicide and declines in mental health.

“[You’re] always wondering if what you’re doing is right. For example, having to make a life or death decision in a matter of split seconds when someone is coming at you with a knife or a gun or something like that. What do you do?” says Violanti.

Yet seeking mental assistance may hinder a promotion or result in an officer’s gun being taken away. The social and professional environment of police work can also discourage officers from talking about mental issues.

“The police culture is one that doesn’t see itself as having problems but as a culture that solves problems instead, Violanti says. “Because of that they think of themselves as somewhat of a superhuman person that needs to deal with this to, take it in and deal with it.”

Losing the stigma

University of Buffalo researchers hope that this study helps take away some of the stigma around seeking medical attention and encourages law enforcement officers to take better care of themselves.

“You’ve got to expect that the feelings of stress and trauma in bad situations is a perfectly normal response and doesn’t mean that you’re crazy and doesn’t mean you can’t handle things,” says Violanti. “It simply means you’re a normal human being.”

The study was recently published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 

You can follow reporter Daniel Robison on twitter @robisonrobison.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.