From the Journals

Survey explores mental health, services use in police officers


New research shows that about a quarter of police officers in one large force report past or present mental health problems.

Responding to a survey, 26% of police officers on the Dallas police department screened positive for depression, anxiety, PTSD, or symptoms of suicide ideation or self-harm.

Mental illness rates were particularly high among female officers, those who were divorced, widowed, or separated, and those with military experience.

The study also showed that concerns over confidentiality and stigma may prevent officers with mental illness from seeking treatment.

The results underscored the need to identify police officers with psychiatric problems and to connect them to the most appropriate individualized care, author Katelyn K. Jetelina, PhD, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology, human genetics, and environmental sciences, University of Texas Health Science Center, Dallas, said in an interview.

“This is a very hard-to-reach population, and because of that, we need to be innovative in reaching them for services,” she said.

The study was published online Oct. 7 in JAMA Network Open.

Dr. Jetelina and colleagues are investigating various aspects of police officers’ well-being, including their nutritional needs and their occupational, physical, and mental health.

The current study included 434 members of the Dallas police department, the ninth largest in the United States. The mean age of the participants was 37 years, 82% were men, and about half were White. The 434 officers represented 97% of those invited to participate (n = 446) and 31% of the total patrol population of the Dallas police department (n = 1,413).

These officers completed a short survey on their smartphone that asked about lifetime diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. They were also asked whether they experienced suicidal ideation or self-harm during the previous 2 weeks.

Overall, 12% of survey respondents reported having been diagnosed with a mental illness. This, said Jetelina, is slightly lower than the rate reported in the general population.

Study participants who had not currently been diagnosed with a mental illness completed the Patient Health Questionnaire–2 (PHQ-2), the Generalized Anxiety Disorder–2 (GAD-2), and the Primary Care–Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PC-PTSD).

Officers were considered to have a positive result if they had a score of 3 or more (PHQ-2, sensitivity of 83% and specificity of 92%; PC-PTSD-5, sensitivity of 93% and specificity of 85%; GAD-2, sensitivity of 86% and specificity of 83%).

About 26% of respondents had a positive screening for mental illness symptoms, mainly PTSD and depression, which Dr. Jetelina noted is a higher percentage than in the general population.

This rate of mental health symptoms is “high and concerning,” but not surprising because of the work of police officers, which could include attending to sometimes violent car crashes, domestic abuse situations, and armed conflicts, said Dr. Jetelina.

“They’re constantly exposed to traumatic calls for service; they see people on their worst day, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. That stress and exposure will have a detrimental effect on mental health, and we have to pay more attention to that,” she said.

Dr. Jetelina pointed out that the surveys were completed in January and February 2020, before COVID-19 had become a cause of stress for everyone and before the increase in calls for defunding police amid a resurgence of Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

However, she stressed that racial biases and occupational stress among police officers are “nothing new for them.” For example, in 2016, five Dallas police officers were killed during Black Lives Matter protests because of their race/ethnicity.


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