SF State News {University Communications}

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Research reveals 9/11 impact on police mental health

Sept. 10, 2010 -- Within minutes of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, police officers were on the scene, helping with the rescue and recovery effort. Almost a decade later, Rosemarie Bowler, lecturer emerita in psychology, is investigating how the trauma of 9/11 is unfolding in the lives of these police responders. Her latest results, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, reveal differences in the way male and female police officers have been affected.

A photo of New York, where the World Trade Center terrorist attack took place.

"We were surprised to find that women police officers, who have been recruited and trained in exactly the same way as their male colleagues, had much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder following 9/11," Bowler said. "This stands in contrast to previous studies, conducted with Gulf War veterans and police officers in general, which found no gender differences."

Bowler and colleagues analyzed information, collected by trained interviewers in New York City, for more than 4,000 police responders to assess the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder that individuals can develop after experiencing a traumatic or terrifying event. Their analysis indicated that 13.9 percent of female officers had PTSD compared with 7.4 percent of male officers.

The findings were based on the first phase of a continuing, longitudinal study conducted by Bowler and Dr. James Cone, medical director at the New York City Health Department's World Trade Center Health Registry, along with SF State graduate students. "

We plan to research this question of gender further," Bowler said. "We do know that one factor that adds to women's risk for developing PTSD is having small children, perhaps associated with concerns about childcare. So, in future interviews we hope to collect more information about women police officers' lifestyles."

Overall, the study found that the rate of PTSD among police involved in the 9/11 response was 8.3 percent, twice as high as the rate for the general U.S. population, and that those police responders who were older or were injured in their response to the World Trade Center terror attack were more likely to develop PTSD.

"We are using 9/11 as an avenue to gain insights that will assist police officers in preparing for traumatic events and dealing with such experiences in the immediate and long term," Bowler said. "We want to find ways to help police officers, who are committed to protecting the public, to continue to cope well and be functional."

The study was based on data from the World Trade Center Health Registry. The New York City Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control monitored more than 71,000 people who voluntarily registered and were directly exposed to the World Trade Center disaster. Information on their experiences and health status was first collected between 2003 and 2004 (two to three years after the event) and again from 2006 to 2007 (five to six years post-event). More than 46,000 adults, or 68 percent of the original enrollees, participated in both of the surveys.

The study was published online July 15 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine

-- Elaine Bible


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