Did turmoil trigger PTSD among Ferguson residents and police? Psychologists measure the impact | St. Louis Public Radio

Did turmoil trigger PTSD among Ferguson residents and police? Psychologists measure the impact

Aug 14, 2015

Fearing for your safety or that of your family; witnessing violence; and the repeated, chronic stress of a traumatic event’s aftermath can all leave mental and emotional scars. Mental health professionals caution that last year's events in Ferguson have likely placed people at risk for developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

With the hopes that they can help people work through their trauma, researchers from the University of Missouri-St. Louis are trying measure the scope of PTSD in the region, triggered by the Ferguson protests.

The group, led by principal investigator Tara Galovski, is conducting periodic surveys of police who responded to the protests and of residents who live in and around Ferguson. Preliminary numbers presented to the St. Louis Association of Black Psychologists show that hundreds of respondents in the sample of about about 600 people experienced trauma last year, and were still feeling the effects in the winter of 2014. Among residents of Ferguson and the surrounding area, 34 percent reported symptoms that exceeded the threshold that would indicate probable PTSD in a clinical setting. Among police officers, that rate was 14 percent, although a higher number of them reported experiencing other traumas in their past, which is a risk factor for later PTSD. 

Symptoms of PTSD include constantly reliving bad memories, avoiding things one used to enjoy and hyperarousal, or jumpiness. Depression and difficulty sleeping often co-occur with PTSD.

Galovski said she did not believe the levels of PTSD symptoms recorded in the initial data were surprising, because the responses were collected in November and December of 2014 and January of 2015, when protest actions were still ongoing. 

“I think that what this data suggests is that there is a place for mental health intervention, so that some of these symptoms can be calmed down. It will put everybody in a better place for moving forward,” Galovski said.

Galovski said a major goal of the study is to measure the rates of PTSD among law enforcement officers, so that agencies responding in Ferguson are aware of their employee’s mental health needs. Of the police respondents, 92 percent reported working overtime during the protests in Ferguson, and 84 percent reported that they feared that they or their loved ones would be killed or severely injured.

Sgt. Jeremy Romo coordinates the St. Louis Area Crisis Intervention Team program, which trains officers how to best to respond to people with mental health concerns.
Credit St. Louis County Police Department

 “You’d be working a 12-hour shift, which would end up being 14 or 15 hours, not being around your family. Our officers on those lines last year had people yelling, saying very unkind things to them repeatedly. Over a 12 hour period, that’s going to wear on you,” said Sgt. Jeremy Romo of the St. Louis County Police. 

Many police officers reported experiencing verbal threats during protests; 35 percent reported receiving threats from the crowd that mentioned killing or raping their family members, wives or children. In Galovski’s preliminary numbers, one-third of police respondents reported major symptoms of depression, and 23 percent reported severe anger related to the events. 

"Most of the officers, they go to work and they really want to help people. I think to be treated that way was really hard,” Romo said. 

Even without extenuating circumstances like civil unrest, symptoms of depression, suicide and PTSD are all alarmingly common among members of law enforcement. The National Police Suicide Foundation estimates that more police officers die by their own hand than are killed in the line of duty. 

Romo said the St. Louis County Police made sure officers had access to counseling services during the unrest last year, (including two psychologists who were former officers). They held mandatory debriefing sessions for officers to vent; began a peer mentoring program; and planned events for officers and their families to de-stress. There’s still a culture in law enforcement that avoids seeking mental health services, Romo said, but he believes the department is on its way to changing that.

“I’m very optimistic. I think we’re doing better than I ever imagined that we would as far as getting that,” Romo said.

Many nonprofits, clergy and local psychologists stepped up to the plate last August to make mental health care accessible to Ferguson residents, particularly those who live in the Canfield Green Apartments. One of the leaders of this charge is Marva Robinson, the president of the St. Louis Association of Black Psychologists.

To Robinson, the study’s early findings of PTSD symptoms among law enforcement were alarming, especially because many of the same officers responded last week to protests on West Florissant Avenue, marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown.  

“We have them stacked on the front lines, engaged with protesters that the judgement of a peaceful protester may not be as clear. My concern is around their level of concentration, their level of reactivity, their level of sensitivity,” Robinson said.  

Psychologist Marva Robinson hands out bubbles to children in Ferguson in the days after Michael Brown's death, to try to help them "take a deep breath."
Credit Tim Lloyd | St. Louis Public Radio

“I question the amount of treatment that’s been mandated. I question if there’s been psychological evaluations performed on these officers. And knowing that that’s a huge gap that has not been addressed—at least not publicly—I have huge concerns,” she said.

Researchers also interviewed community members about the source of their fears during the unrest in Ferguson. According to the preliminary numbers, almost half felt threatened by people participating in protests or riots. More than a third reported feeling threatened by police, and 13 percent reported a fear of both.

“So, again, we have this recipe for disaster,” Robinson said. “You have people who are fearful out of what occurred last time, and you have them being policed by people who are fearful of what happened last time.”

Left out of the study are people who are frequent demonstrators but do not live in the Ferguson region. They are also at risk for similar reactions to trauma, Robinson said.

The study’s first round of responses were collected after Galovski and her colleagues put their own research funds up as seed money while they waited for grant applications to be approved. In June, they collected another round of data that has yet to be analyzed. Galovski's team, now funded by UMSL’s College of Arts and Sciences, will collect a final round of data this December to see if participants have been able to work through their past traumas and improve their mental health. 

Though formerly a psychology professor at UMSL, Galovski has since moved to Boston for a new position, but will retain her role as principal investigator for the project. 

One indicator of a person's future mental health is whether they believe that a better future is on the horizon. According to Galovski's early data, half of police respondents said they were “not very hopeful” that change is possible, or that a positive change would be meaningful and enduring. Community members were generally more optimistic: About 84 percent said they were “somewhat hopeful” or “extremely hopeful” that change is possible.

“PTSD is a very treatable disorder,” Galovski said. “The people that we always are concerned about are the people whose symptoms don’t change, who kind of get stuck in PTSD, those would be the people who I think this data could really help to generate mental health services.”

If you or a loved one is at risk for PTSD, a list of resources from the National Center for PTSD is here.

For more health and science news from St. Louis, follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB