Police officers at risk of PTSD when investigating child sexual abuse cases

  • Date

    Mon 18 Jun 18

policing header

Police officers investigating child sexual abuse cases experience high levels of stress and anxiety, putting them at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, a new report in the journal ‘Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management’, has found.

In the first study of its kind in the UK, researchers from the Universities of Surrey and Essex examined the psychological impact investigating child abuse cases has on child protection police officers. 

Surveying 101 police officers from 12 forces across the country, researchers found that more than a third were suffering from secondary traumatic stress, having interviewed victims and alleged perpetrators, impacting on their mental and emotional wellbeing. Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional response experienced when an individual is exposed to the first hand trauma of others and can lead to post traumatic stress disorder.

It was also found that 11.9% of participants had experienced moderate to severe levels of anxiety and 5.9% were categorised as moderately depressed as a result of their work in investigating child sexual abuse.

During the study researchers also examined whether other factors including, age, gender, length of service as a police officer and the experience of abuse as a child, increased an officer’s likelihood of developing secondary traumatic stress. Unlike previous studies in the USA, no relationship between such factors and developing secondary traumatic stress was found.

Dr Leanne Andrews, Deputy Director of Research in our School of Health and Social Care and paper co-author, said: “The main finding that the total number of interviews with suspected perpetrators of child sexual abuse, reported adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and reported child victims of child sexual abuse in the past six months, was associated to higher levels of secondary traumatic stress is extremely important for police forces to take account of when developing their wellbeing policies.”

Dr Simon Draycott, Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Surrey and paper co-author, said: “Child abuse is a heinous crime and it is understandable that police officers are negatively impacted during investigations.

“For some police officers there is a significant psychological cost of working in child sexual abuse cases and we need to ensure that proper provisions are in place to support their psychological wellbeing and prevent any health issues escalating.”

The study was led by Dr Amy-Kate Hurrell, Clinical Psychologist at Barts Health NHS Trust.