How Police Officer Stress in the U.S. Compares to Belize
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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University and
Kendra Hoyt, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, and Life Coach Counselor, Galen University, Belize
Police stress is a major problem in law enforcement in the United States and throughout the world. Research has shown that officers experience a higher mortality rate than the general population and that their risk of cardiovascular disease is 1.7 times greater than that of the general population.
In addition to physical health risks, police stress can have an adverse effect on officers’ mental health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs as a result of experiencing traumatic events, which are part of the job in policing. According to Dr. John Violanti of the University of Buffalo, a retired NYPD Officer, around 15 percent of police officers experience symptoms of PTSD.
In 2017, Dr. Jarrod Sadulski completed a two-year study that examined the stress management strategies used by officers who had successfully managed stress throughout their police career. Sadulski had the opportunity to speak with officers around the United States and to provide academic presentations on PTSD symptoms among police officers.
Recently, Galen University of Belize invited Sadulski to visit the Central American nation. The invitation included two speaking events on Belize’s national news programs, a speaking event on the Galen campus to nationwide criminal justice stakeholders on the topic of human and narcotics trafficking. He also co-hosted a police stress workshop with Galen University lecturer Kendra Hoyt, which was an essential partner in this project.
The stress workshop, which was attended by Belize police officers from all over the country, provided an excellent opportunity to compare the stress in policing and stress management between police officers in the United States and Belize.
During the workshop, Belize police officers discussed the various stressors that they have experienced throughout their careers.
The primary stressors Belize police officers identified included:
- Dealing with children’s crises
- Responding to traumatic accident scenes
- The unpredictable nature of police work
- Responding to major crimes
- A lack of co-worker and administrator support
- The difficulty of balancing work and home responsibilities
- The difficulty in identifying signs of cumulative stress
Interestingly, the stressors identified by Belize police officers mirrored the primary stressors identified by police officers in the United States during Jarrod’s two-year study. Officers discussed the challenges of leaving the stress of policing at the job when returning home and the emotional challenges of responding to traumatic events. One supervisor in the training session discussed an officer who had committed suicide at the police station. That incident had clearly taken a toll on the supervisor and reflected the importance of the stress management workshop.
Most Effective Stress Management Strategies
During the workshop, Belize police officers identified the following stress management strategies as the most effective for them:
- Communicating with others about the traumatic experiences that have occurred in the field
- Receiving positive feedback from supervisors
- Social interaction with others while off duty
- Spending time away from the job
While some similarities existed in stress management with U.S. police officers, there also were some differences that were discussed during the workshop. One of those biggest differences was the use of peer support programs and critical incident stress management programs that are used in the United States following a traumatic event experienced by the officers. Peer support programs have been found to promote resiliency in police officers following a traumatic event by talking with other officers who experienced similar events.
Questionnaire Revealed a Lack of Self-Care Practices by Belize Officers
A telling segment of the workshop occurred when the officers completed a self-care assessment tool adapted from Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization by Saakvitne, Pearlman & Staff of TSI/CAAP. Officers were surprised by the results, which revealed a lack of self-care practices in their own lives. They each felt the urgency to begin instituting such practices at a manageable level both financially and personally.
One of the other major differences — one that presents quite the challenge for police officers in Belize — is that they do not receive health benefits. While there are limited government-issued therapeutic services for which the fee is waived, the police are not afforded overall health care benefits. Nor are they paid a yearly salary that is even half what officers are paid in the United States. That salary discrepancy further complicates the lives of officers in Belize who may indeed be suffering health issues due to stress factors and the need additional psychological and/or physical health care.
During the workshop Hoyt and Sadulski taught about indicators of PTSD and other stress-related problems. Hoyt emphasized the value of trauma-informed care and managing traumatic life experiences. As part of the workshop the officers took the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) questionnaire.
An ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect and other hallmarks of a difficult childhood. According to the questionnaire, the rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be and the higher your risk is for health problems later in life. The officers’ results were further indication for many of them that they were already predisposed to a higher risk of stress that could lead to potential physical and mental health issues. The results of the ACE questionnaire further substantiated the need to support the officers in these ways.
One well-received concept that was also discussed was incorporating a discussion by supervisors about police stress to subordinates during their annual employee evaluations. Around half of the workshop participants were supervisors, who seemed open to the idea of using employee review counseling as an opportunity to ask subordinates if they are struggling on the job or at home due to police stress.
In addition, supervisors agreed that employee evaluations could be a good time to watch for signs of PTSD and other stress-related problems that were discussed during the workshop.
The workshop has led to continuing conversations between Galen University and the Ministry of National Security with respect to future work on how best to support its emergency personnel.
A Need to Provide Training and Education to Promote Resiliency among Police Officers
The workshop revealed that police stress is a universal problem. Therefore, it is important to place continued emphasis on providing training and education to promote resiliency to overcome police officers’ stress.
The workshop was reported by the nation’s various media, which noted the attention being paid to the problem of police stress. In addition to the media, Hoyt coordinated a 30-minute national news interview during which Sadulski spoke live on Open Your Eyes, a program on Belize’s Channel 5 News.
Our special thanks to Galen University for orchestrating this unique opportunity to spread awareness about police stress.
About the Authors:
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski visited Belize in February of 2019 through the invitation of Galen University to co-facilitate a police stress workshop to some of the nation’s police officers, which was co-facilitated with Ms. Kendra Hoyt. Through Galen University’s invitation, Dr. Sadulski also had the opportunity to provide a presentation on the topics of narcotics and human trafficking to key stakeholders in criminal justice in the nation of Belize. In addition to these events, Jarrod participated in two national television news events through Galen University where he discussed the topic of managing police stress. He has 20 years of law enforcement experience and has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2011. To reach him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
Kendra Hoyt is an educator and life coach counselor who focuses on restorative justice practices and has been a full-time faculty member with Galen University since 2015 in the Arts and Science Department – Criminal Justice Pathway program. Ms. Hoyt is an integral part of the social justice system in Belize. Ms. Hoyt has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Northeastern University, Boston, MA and is originally from the United States. In Belize, Ms. Hoyt is a frequent contributor to the Open Your Eyes national news program and has traveled throughout the region to support social justice. Ms. Hoyt has the advantage of understanding police stress and criminal justice issues from the perspective both in the United States and in Central America. Ms. Hoyt’s expertise is in mental health, suicide prevention, stress management, the criminal justice systems in Belize and in the United States, and behavioral management. Ms. Hoyt has over 25 years of experience in education and victim advocacy. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.