Research reveals harrowing impact of traumatic material on criminal investigators

Rape, murder, torture, arson, acts of terrorism and even genocide: if there’s one thing police and justice officials know, it’s that cruelty and destruction of humanity knows no bounds. In their jobs, professionals working to bring offenders to justice are routinely exposed to traumatic experiences through written witness accounts, videos or recordings. And there is growing concern that existing systems are failing to protect them.

In Europe, the numbers are alarming. In 2022, mental health issues led police officers in England to take 730,000 days of sick leave – up from 320,000 in 2012/13. In Spain, 28 committed suicide – 21.4% less than in 2021, but the second worst number since records began. This rises to 78 suicides in France, including prison guards, while Greece recorded 159 suicides among police forces in 2019. The situation is compounded by the stigmatization of opening up about mental health issues, where officers fear it could lead them to be seen as weak or to deny them the chances of career advancement.

To better understand how traumatic material affects police forces, our team of psychologists at the University of Birmingham conducted research and 40 interviews with analytical professionals in the UK, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and Canada. This group of professionals works in the shadows of criminal investigations. They include criminal analysts, intelligence analysts, intelligence officers, digital forensic analysts and behavioral investigation consultants. An integral part of the criminal justice system, they provide analysis, intelligence and support for investigations and prosecutions for the most serious crimes. Among them, 37% were diagnosed with severe depression and approximately 55% with moderate depression, as per our analysis conducted earlier this year.

echoes of trauma

Analytical practitioners reported how this constant exposure negatively influences their feelings about the world, their home and social life. Reflecting a general concern among these professionals for the safety of their loved ones, one woman said:

“I am more worried about my sister if she would tell her [she were] going for a walk at night on a quiet road.

Respondents report precautionary and avoidant behaviors related to the trauma they read about or heard about through their work. It affects their lives and the lives of close family members. One of them, S. (all respondents are anonymous) wonders how he can “leave the kids at someone’s house to sleep”. With a visibly shaky voice, he says that he “finds himself more skeptical than a normal parent would be.” Meanwhile, Y. says she doesn’t leave a phone charger by her bed, as she “feels the burglar would strangle her with it.”

Respondents struggled with intense emotions, mentioning instances of “emotional breakdown”. “Victim interviews are harrowing to watch,” Z. said, his eyes darting around nervously. “They are written in such detail that I often feel tears streaming down my cheeks.”

Overall, many report having “forgotten how to trust”. “I’m more socially aware of my surroundings,” says one man. “I would say I’m more cautious and I don’t make friends as easily.” “It turned me into a paranoid relationship wreck,” another woman admits “Like if I dated a man he would behave like one of those criminals whose cases I worked”.

We found that analytic practitioners with the belief that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people (known as the “belief in a just world”) are at greater risk for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is possible to experience bad things happening to good people and that bad actions go unpunished, leading to psychological suffering.

Ignored by governments

Despite the toll this exposure takes, our respondents felt invisible to policymakers, commenting that little consideration was given to their mental health and well-being compared to frontline officials. One woman expressed relief that the focus was finally on them.

Most of the analytic practitioners who spoke with us said that they have not received training in what are adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms for dealing with traumatic content. They felt that the support provided to them was reactive, not preventive, and the stigmatization of mental health in the workplace was certainly a barrier to seeking help for some.

Ways of dealing with the police and staff.

“Seeking private support is my only option. Everyone will know the problems I’m having and some will think that I can’t do my job or that I’m not fit for the job.”

For these professionals to protect us, we need to protect them. In addition to our academic research, we produced two videos to give them a voice and raise awareness of the impact of this work on their mental health.

We are also co-producing a toolkit with practical advice for organizations and are working with Strand 3 leader from the National Well-being Group for UK policing, which focuses on the well-being of investigators. The aim of our work is to give them a voice and recognition.

Looking to the future, more research is needed to understand the mechanisms of what could be the risk and resilience factors for these analytical professionals and other professionals who face difficulties working indirectly with the traumatic experiences of others. This will help employers and policy makers to provide the right support.

Created in 2007 to help accelerate and share scientific knowledge on key societal issues, the AXA Research Fund has supported nearly 700 projects worldwide conducted by researchers in 38 countries. To learn more, visit the AXA Research Fund website or follow @AXAResearchFund on Twitter.

Research reveals harrowing impact of traumatic material on criminal investigators

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