research reveals the harrowing impact of traumatic material on detectives

Rape, murder, torture, arson, terrorist attacks and even genocide: if there’s one thing the police and judiciary know, it’s that the cruelty and destruction of humanity knows no bounds. In their line of work, the professionals who work to bring perpetrators to justice are routinely exposed to traumatic experiences through written witness statements, video footage or recordings. And there is growing concern that the systems in place are not protecting them.

In Europe, the figures are alarming. In 2022, mental health problems caused police officers in England to take 730,000 days of sick leave – up from 320,000 in 2012/13. In Spain, 28 committed suicides – 21.4% less than in 2021, but the second worst figure since records began. This rises to 78 suicides in France if prison guards are included, while Greece recorded 159 suicides among police in 2019. weaken or deny them opportunities for career advancement.

To better understand how traumatic material affects police forces, our team of psychologists at the University of Birmingham conducted surveys and conducted 40 interviews with analysts in the UK, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and Canada. This group of professionals works in the shadow of crime investigations. These include crime analysts, intelligence analysts, intelligence officers, digital forensic analysts, and behavioral research consultants. They are an integral part of the criminal justice system, providing analysis, intelligence and support in investigations and prosecutions for the most serious crimes. Of these, 37% were diagnosed with major depression and around 55% with moderate depression, according to our analysis early this year.

Echoes of trauma

Analysts have reported how this constant exposure negatively affects their feelings about the world, their family life and social life. As a result of a general concern among these professionals about the safety of their loved ones, one woman said:

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

Interviewees report precautionary and avoidance behavior related to the trauma they have read or heard about through their work. This has consequences for their lives and that of their immediate family. One of them, S. (all interviewees are anonymous) wonders how he can “let his children stay with someone”. His voice shakes noticeably and says he “thinks he’s more skeptical than a normal parent would be.” Meanwhile, Y. says not to leave a phone charger by her bed, because she “thinks the burglar would strangle her with it”.

Interviewees struggled with intense emotions, citing instances of “emotional breakdown”. ‘The interviews with the victim are harrowing to watch,’ said Z., looking around nervously. “They are written in such detail that I often feel tears rolling down my cheeks.”

In general, many report that they have “forgotten how to trust”. “I’m more socially aware of my surroundings,” says one man. “I would say I am more careful and don’t make friends as easily”. “It has turned me into a relationship paranoid wreck,” another woman admits. “Like if I dated a man, he would act like one of those offenders whose cases I worked on”.

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

Ignored by governments

Despite the toll this exposure takes, our interviewees felt invisible to policymakers, noting that little attention was paid to their mental health and well-being compared to that of front-line officers. One woman was relieved that the focus was finally on them.

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

Ways police and staff cope.

“Seeking private support is my only option. Everyone will know what problems I face and some will think that I cannot do my job or that I am not suitable for the job.”

If these professionals want to protect us, we must 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 of practical recommendations for organizations and working with the Part 3 leader of the National Well-being Group for UK policing which focuses on the well-being of detectives. The purpose of our work is to give them a voice and recognition.

Looking ahead, more research is needed to understand the mechanisms for what the risk and resilience factors might be for these analytic practitioners and other professionals who have difficulties working indirectly with other people’s traumatic experiences. This helps employers and policymakers to provide adequate support.

Established in 2007 to accelerate and share scientific knowledge on important societal issues, the AXA Research Fund has supported nearly 700 projects around the world, conducted by researchers in 38 countries. For more information, visit the AXA Research Fund site or follow @AXAResearchFund on Twitter.

research reveals the harrowing impact of traumatic material on detectives

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