Crossing the frayed blue line

By Costa Maragos Posted: July 8, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Police officers face a higher than normal rate of post traumatic stress disorder.
Police officers face a higher than normal rate of post traumatic stress disorder. (Fotolia Images)

We know police officers experience great amounts of stress and trauma as part of their normal job. Now research at the U of R is telling us that officers in Saskatchewan are supportive of efforts to learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Samantha Horswill, a Doctoral student in Clinical Psychology, is researching PTSD as it relates to police officers. She sent out a survey to all currently deployed police officers in Saskatchewan (municipal and RCMP) to share their experiences. Nearly half of the officers contacted responded.

“Having so many officers respond is incredible. It speaks to police officers wanting to contribute to research like this right now,” says Horswill, whose work is being funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Regional Partnerships Program award. Horswill also received funding from the Department of Psychology and the Faculty of Arts.

“PTSD has been in the media a lot lately and police officers care about this issue right now. They see their colleagues, their friends and their family struggling with the consequences of trauma. We see in the news how this can lead to disability and even suicide,” says Horswill.

Samantha Horswill
Samantha Horswill is a
doctoral student in Clinical
Psychology.

The survey was completed anonymously but most telling are the comments left by those who participated.

“I’m amazed at the number of officers who are grateful this research is happening,” says Horswill, who is still analyzing the data. “They’re glad to see there is a commitment on the part of police forces to further research this issue.”

There is extensive research on PTSD and first responders in the United States but Horswill says less so in Canada, and even less with police officers. Most of the research on PTSD in Canada with these types of populations is with military officers.

“It’s starting to pick up. It’s been coming for a long time. Everybody is ready for this to happen. So now we have to harness that excitement and do the research while that excitement is at its peak,” says Horswill, who is now conducting a similar survey with Saskatchewan municipal police recruits.

PTSD in the civilian population happens at rates of five to 10 percent, but rates are much higher among police officers with estimates ranging as high as 30 per cent, according to research done by Dr. Gordon Asmundson, Professor of Psychology at the U of R.

“There’s potential for a trickle-down effect based on the results of this project,” says Horswill. “This means that the knowledge we receive from this research can be applied to not only police officers but others who are also exposed to trauma.”

Another area of research that has Horswill excited is posttraumatic growth, or the experiences of people who not only recover from PTSD but thrive as well.  

Horswill is working under the direction of Associate Professor of Psychology at the U of R, Dr. Nicholas Carleton, whose expertise was recently featured in a film about PTSD in the military. 

Horswill completed her Master’s at the U of R in 2013, following her undergrad at the University of Alberta. Her current project will contribute to her doctoral dissertation and will be developed into reports for participating police forces in Saskatchewan.

She will be entering the third year of her PhD this fall.