Depression and Suicidal Thoughts Among Police Officers Differ Based on Gender and Work Shift, Study Finds

By Lois Baker

Release Date: October 16, 2008

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A study by John Violanti has shown that female and male police officers react differently to the stress of shift work.

BUFFALO, N.Y -- A quarter of female police officers and nearly as many male officers assigned to shift work had thought about taking their own lives, a new study of police work patterns and stress headed by a University at Buffalo researcher has shown.

In addition, reports of depressive symptoms among these officers were higher than in the general population -- 12.5 percent among women and 6.2 percent among men, compared to 5.2 percent in the population at large.

Unexpected among the findings was the difference between male and female officers when work shifts were analyzed. Policewomen who worked mostly day shifts reported having more suicidal thoughts than female colleagues assigned to work afternoons or nights, while the opposite was true for males.

Results of the study appear in the October 2008 edition of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

John Violanti, Ph.D., a former member of the New York State Police, research associate professor at the University at Buffalo, and first author on the paper, said he had expected to find that both men and women officers would be affected negatively by working midnight shifts, but that the results for women officers make sense.

"Most of the women had responsibility for family and child care, in addition to their jobs as police officers, and working the day shift took them away from those important parts of their lives," noted Violanti. "It's also possible that women aren't as comfortable in a daytime shift, where there can be a negative environment and more opportunity for conflict.

"There's a lot going on during the day, and police work is still primarily a male occupation. I think women have more to deal with, not only by being a police officer and being away from their children, but by contending with the social isolation and internal operations of police departments.

"On the other hand, more suicidal thoughts and depression reported by males on the midnight shift may be accounted for by isolation from the male bonding that takes place in a predominately male organization. Plus, working alone at night (officers in this force are assigned to single-officer patrol cars) without the support of immediate backup can be stressful," he said.

Violanti, a member of the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions, has studied the effects of policing on officers' health for 16 years. From his previous research, he knew that the risk of police suicide is three times higher than for other municipal workers, and he wanted to know if there was an association between shift work and increased thoughts of suicide in police officers, whose jobs are high stress by definition.

Many police officers are assigned to work the evening "swing shift" or the nighttime "graveyard shift" -- schedules that have been shown to upset circadian rhythms, disrupt family and social life, and increase stress in shift workers in general.

The study involved 115 officers selected randomly from a 935-officer mid-sized urban police force. Participants answered questionnaires on thoughts of suicide, symptoms of depression and on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Results showed that among women who had high depression-symptom scores, thoughts of suicide increased 116 percent for every 10 percent increase in time working day shifts. However, in male officers, suicidal thoughts were higher in those who worked evening and night shifts than in those assigned to the day shift. This was particularly evident in male officers who reported post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms or depression.

Violanti is planning to conduct a longitudinal study of the effects of shift work on these officers, and has received funds from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to study the effects of shift work on cancer risk.

The current study was funded by a cooperative agreement between NIOSH and the National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Additional contributors to the research were Luenda Charles, Tara Hartley, Anna Mnatsakanova, Michael Andrew, Desta Fekedulegn, and Cecil Burchfiel, from the CDC, and Bryan Vila from Washington State University.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system that is 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.