University at Buffalo Study Shows Positive Personality Traits May Protect Police at High Risk for PTSD

Published January 15, 2015

Personal traits such as resilience, satisfaction with life, and a grateful disposition may help shield police officers from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of a natural disaster. This is the case even though police officers are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events and those events have been found to provoke PTSD. These are the conclusions of a new study that examined police officers in the New Orleans area both during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina.

“We found that symptoms of PTSD significantly decreased among subjects as resilience, satisfaction with life and gratitude increased,” says researcher John Violanti, PhD, UB professor of epidemiology and environmental health, and an internationally known expert on police stress. “This also was true among officers — excluded from the study — who did not work during the hurricane.  This study extends our understanding of how positive factors are associated with reduced PTSD symptoms, and can inform and guide treatment modalities for PTSD,” Violanti says.

The protective personal qualities under consideration in the study  were resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; satisfaction with life; post-traumatic personal growth —  that is, psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world that contribute to deeply meaningful change; and a grateful disposition, which is associated with positive affect and well-being, prosocial behaviors, and other qualities.

The authors point out that the severity of symptoms and risk of PTSD are associated with such factors as the severity of the disaster, degree of exposure, personal losses, and even how one behaved during the event. Following Katrina, the study says, police officers faced a number of physical and psychological challenges, and many reported having to conduct their duties — crowd control, looting control, rescuing victims in flooded areas, body retrieval — while facing open hostility from the citizens they were trying to aid, sometimes in the form of assault and being shot at.

“About 50 percent of the general population in the U.S. has been exposed to at least one traumatic event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or other terrifying situations,” Violanti says. “Five to six percent of them will develop PTSD, while others will cope pretty well. Police officers are at significantly higher risk than the general public because PTSD is more likely among those repeatedly exposed to trauma,” he says, “and between 9-19 percent of police will develop PTSD, indicating both a higher rate of occurrence than in the general public and greater variability in risk.”

In one survey, eight weeks after the hurricane, 19 percent of officers reported symptoms that met the criteria for PTSD. The aim of this new study was to find out if personal qualities found to protect the general public from PTSD also mitigated symptoms in police officers, considered to be a high-risk population.

The authors conclude that longitudinal research should be conducted to continue the assessment of how protective factors alone and in combination play a role in protecting against or reducing negative conditions that result from exposure to traumatic events.

The research was conducted using a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Dr. Violanti and several NIOSH researchers are among the authors.  The cross-sectional study, “Positive Psychological Factors are Associated with Lower PTSD Symptoms in Police Officers: Post Hurricane Katrina” was published online in a December 2014 special issue edition of the journal Stress and Health.