By Kotie Geldenhuys
Normal, healthy people seldom dream about death. They do not see crime scenes and dead people when they close their eyes. They do not pray night after night to have a peaceful night's rest. They do not relive moments of anxiety and fear over and over again. They do not wake up with a shock, sweating and screaming.
Law enforcement officers are not only exposed to violence; they are often themselves the victims of violence and sometimes, they also have to use violence against offenders. Law enforcement officers are expected to have considerable tolerance for living with violence and danger, but this constant exposure to violence has an impact on both their mental and physical health. It can cost some law enforcement officers dearly in terms of their careers, their marriages and even their lives.
Although almost all law enforcement officers in South Africa are exposed to violence from time to time, the focus of our article will fall on members of the SAPS and specifically those working at high risk units such as Operational Response Units at Public Order Policing, the Special Task Force, the National Intervention Unit and Tactical Response Units, Detective Services which include the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offence (FCS) Units, Vispol which includes K9 Units and the Flying Squad and Forensic Services which includes crime scene experts, the Victim Identification Unit and Investigative Psychology Unit.
Members put their lives at risk each day when leaving home due to the high levels of crime and violence which South African police members have to deal with. They never know when they will have to face a bullet fired by a criminal without warning or when they will be injured in a vehicle crash during high speed chases with criminals. Police officials are often exposed to horrific scenes when they attend to serious vehicle accidents, shooting incidents, stabbing and rape scenes, violent protest actions and many other violent crime situations. Witnessing these horrific scenes is incredibly stressful and could lead to disillusionment and feelings of depression. It comes as no surprise that police work is regarded as one of the most stressful occupations in the world.
While being exposed to the blood, gore and danger, police officials are also at risk of getting into contact with communicable diseases in their daily interactions with citizens and risk being verbally and physically assaulted. In many other countries, the police are recognised and respected for their important work and receive competitive salaries, but in South Africa this is not the case. Police officials are generally at the receiving end of the problems experienced by communities and are blamed for almost everything that is going wrong. Van der Westhuizen (2016) stresses that this lack of recognition makes police officials feel unappreciated and undervalued and feel that their work is regarded as meaningless and insignificant.
Moreover, law enforcement officers cannot simply withdraw from their work environment when they are under threat. They cannot simply turn their backs on those who have called on them for help and they need to adhere to the responsibility of maintaining law and order in society. When police members experience too much occupational stress, they can suffer from increased chronic stress, depression, heart disease, post-traumatic stress, burn-out, and alcohol and drug abuse disorders, and they might even attempt to commit suicide.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - the hidden toll
Frequent exposure to dangerous incidents and violence can lead to the development of mental health conditions including anxiety disorders such as depression, major depressive disorders (MDD), acute stress disorders (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Leino et al (2011) reiterate that damage to one's psychological health can manifest itself in reduced work satisfaction or psychological morbidity, which can range from distress to more serious psychological disorders. Prolonged distress symptoms can even lead to more serious psychiatric disorders.
What is PTSD?
According to Skeffington (2016), PTSD is a serious mental health condition that may develop following potentially traumatic experiences. Symptoms include hyperarousal or hypervigilance, severe anxiety, numbing or depression, intrusive thoughts (typically flashbacks or nightmares), avoidance or withdrawal, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Most people who experience traumatic events may have temporary difficulty in adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms worsen, last for months or even years and interfere with a person's day-to-day functioning, s/he may have PTSD.
The extent of the problem
In February 2016, the acting National Commissioner of the SAPS at the time, Lt-Gen Khomotso Phahlane, made a presentation to the Police Portfolio Committee and informed the committee members that the SAPS's Component Employee Health and Wellness (EHW) received 19 097 cases involving psychiatric conditions (such as depression, stress and anxiety disorders) during the 2015/2016 financial year.