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Post-Katrina Effects on St. Bernard Parish Police Officers to be Studied

By Lois Baker

Release Date: August 30, 2010

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A grant from NIOSH will enable John Violanti to study the long-term mental-health impact of Hurricane Katrina on officers who policed the disaster in St. Bernard Parish.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo researcher will spend the next two years studying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the long-term effects of Hurricane Katrina on police officers who worked during the disaster.

The present proposal, funded by a $156,750 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), will examine the long-term post-Katrina mental-health and social impact on police officers who policed the disaster in St. Bernard Parish, located southeast of New Orleans and one of the areas most devastated by the hurricane.

John Violanti, PhD, research associate professor in UB's School of Public Health and Health Professions and former member of the New York State Police, is lead researcher.

"Previous research suggests that disasters have a harmful impact on a person's mental health," says Violanti, "and no more is this evident than in those who respond first to disaster, conduct rescue and recovery missions, and try to maintain civil order, as well as deal with their own personal losses.

"Such was the case with the police in the New Orleans area during Katrina," he continues. "In addition, the police, as well as all residents, were impacted by the lack of essential services following the storm. Because of this void in services, mental health among those most exposed at multiple levels of the storm -- the first responders -- got no relief. This may have led to a prolonged strain and extension of symptoms over time."

Through a decade of studies of police officers, Violanti and colleagues have shown that the pressures of law enforcement put officers at risk for high blood pressure, insomnia, increased levels of destructive stress hormones, heart problems, PTSD and suicide.

The present study proposes to assess the possible persistence and/or presence of mental-health symptoms in the police officers since Katrina. The St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Department was chosen because that location likely suffered the worst brunt of the storm.

The study aims to describe the demographic and psychosocial characteristics among police officers to determine if psychological symptoms are connected with a variety of life events associated with the hurricane.

Researchers also will gather data to develop future interventions tailored to the specific needs of the officers and, in addition to publishing the results of their research on this traumatic event, will pass them along to agencies and emergency responders who could use the findings in the future.

"This research may increase our understanding of the prolonged psychological effects of disasters upon first responders," says Violanti. "These results may benefit police officers directly by providing clearer evidence of the relationship between the psychological factors they experience, which could result in organizational changes to reduce stress."

Michael Rutter, PhD, and Holly Fetter, PhD, from the Department of Counselor Education at Canisius College in Buffalo, are collaborating on the study.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.