Experts have warned of a "clinical and public sector crisis" after a survey of nearly 17,000 officers and staff revealed rates of PTSD nearly five times higher than the general population. Yet two-thirds were unaware they had the condition.
Of them, eight per cent were found to have clinical symptoms of PTSD - defined as an anxiety disorder, caused by trauma, with recurring disturbing memories.
Alarmingly, a higher number, 12 per cent had "complex PTSD" which sees symptoms "harden" through repeated trauma exposure into a chronic condition of emotional numbness and disconnection.
Although PTSD was first defined in 1980, and the military are screened, it is the first time ever police officers and staff have ever been asked about the condition.
Steve Kent, chairman of South Yorkshire police federation, (PF) who was a frontline officer for 16 years, and had to take time off due to stress some years ago, said the figures came as no surprise, with police “bouncing from job to job”, without even a meal break.
“(These are) sometimes emotionally taxing incidents involving people being seriously hurt or injured or victims of crime, then five minutes later, victims of a horrendous road traffic accident.
"After a bit it does chip away and starts to take a toll.”
South Yorkshire Police, was trying to deal with the issue, he said, but police were under intense pressure because there were 800 fewer officers than 10 years ago.
There was also “a bit of an ingrained macho mentality” which meant officers did not always feel free to sit down and discuss issues with peers and family.
Brian Booth, chairman of West Yorkshire Police Federation, said with 600 less officers, the chance of going to a horrific incident was increased.
“These images burn - a lot of officers I’ve deal with they have nightmares where they can still smell the blood. They will be painting their gates, rubbing off the rust and the smell brings it back, so much that they think they will be physically sick.”
In the past there was a “canteen culture” and officers could go out, have a pint and using black humour, deal with an incident.
Now they are going from “one horrific thing to another” and not getting any mental downtime.
Dr Jess Miller, a sociologist from the University of Cambridge, who led the research, said the numbers who had complex PTSD were concerning, as it meant they already had PTSD.
And she warned a "stiff upper lip attitude"was not working in modern policing.
She said: "We need to address PTSD first and make sure officers are given tools and time and space to process (incidents).
"In policing before austerity, officers have more chance to casually make sense of things, because they would be going out in teams, there's be the canteen, the bar, time after work.
"We suspect if they are going out on their own to do jobs, they don't get to sit and digest it. They go home or onto the next job.
"Things like paedophilia, child sex exploitation and counter terrorism, you can't casually bring (those subjects) up, for security reasons you might not."Chief executive of the charity Police Care UK, which funded the survey, Gill Scott-Moore, said: "There is no comprehensive strategy to tackle the issue of mental health in policing, and that has to change.
"The service has real challenges around recognising and responding to the signs and symptoms of trauma exposure and is heavily reliant upon generic NHS provision that isn't equipped for the specialist treatment needed."
A two-year study is now beginning to look at techniques to help people digest traumatic experiences, including drawing sketch maps and time-lines of incidents.
The survey comes weeks after the launch of the ground-breaking National Police Wellbeing Service aimed at improving mental and physical health support for officers and staff .
It will include mental health outreach support for police officers and staff as well as training and toolkits to improve the provision in individual forces.
Funded with £7.5m from the Home Office’s Police Transformation Fund, it has been overseen by the College of Policing working closely with the National Policing Lead for Wellbeing Chief Constable Andy Rhodes (Lancashire).