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June 12, 2009

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Gender differences in the intensity and frequency of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may not relate to biology as much as psychology, according to a new study of nearly 300 females – civilians and police officers.

Previous studies have indicated that, in the civilian population, females suffer from the disorder more frequently and more intensely than males, yet studies on military and police officers have not found a difference between the genders.

This study focused just on women – comparing police officers and civilians on several variables including trauma exposure and cumulative PTSD symptoms – and found significantly different patterns of emotion expression within the same gender.

“The good news is that these emotional proclivities probably are not biologically predetermined but rather open to psychosocial influence,” said Nnamdi Pole, Smith College associate professor of psychology and the study’s lead researcher. “As we better understand the causes and consequences of these influences, we may someday be able to eliminate – or reduce – PTSD symptoms in civilian women.”

PTSD affects about 7.7 million American adults age 18 and older, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and is especially likely to occur following interpersonal violence. Given the violent nature of their work, urban police officers are about twice as likely as civilians to develop the disorder. Yet, mere exposure to violence and traumatic stress is not enough to predict who will get PTSD.

Researchers confirmed previous findings that despite the police officers’ greater exposure to violence, female civilians reported significantly more severe symptoms of PTSD. However, it is unclear whether some of the differences between the officer and civilian groups existed prior to police work or whether they emerged as a result of police training, noted the researchers.

Police culture and training encourage its participants to adopt a traditionally masculine gender role including minimization of emotional reactions such as fear during life-threatening duty-related experiences, according to the researchers.

Women are in the minority in virtually all police departments and encounter enormous pressure to conform to male norms. For female officers, the cost of openly expressing fear and helplessness may be great, and include ridicule, ostracism and potential harassment from male peers, they noted.

Pole collaborated on the study with Michelle M. Lilly, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Suzanne R. Best, Thomas Metzler and Charles R. Marmar, at the University of California, San Francisco, and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Their paper, “Gender and PTSD: What can we learn from female officers?,”  appeared in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

Study participants were from New York City and the San Francisco Bay area and the research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. One of the largest women’s colleges in the United States, Smith enrolls 2,800 students from nearly every state and 62 other countries.


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