Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Police suicides

Pondicherry police - kepis
Five police constables from Pune committed suicide this year. Suicide by police personnel the world over has been extensively reported. It is generally known that the occupation is stressful and associated with psychological stressors that make personnel prone to suicide. However, there is a marked variance in reported rates and stressors. Local factors may overshadow any generalisations even within the country. For instance, in the US/Europe firearms are the most common suicide method used by police (61-77%), but in Pune hanging was the only method used.

Sources of stress in police personnel

There is conflicting evidence as to the extent to which police constitute a high risk group for suicide. A study of well-being in police at Bangalore showed they were were better adjusted and had a better quality of life than comparable middle class urban factory workers (Geetha 1998). However, they had poorer social contact and support beyond the immediate family. This was attributed to their long working hours, requirement to be on duty during holidays, and the prevalent negative attitude of the public towards the police in general. Traffic policemen, personnel with higher education, and freshly recruited personnel were found to be under greater stress.

Police suicides are an interaction of personal vulnerabilities, workplace stressors, and environmental factors as is  seen with other worker groups. Two risk factors have been consistently delineated for suicide by police personnel; workplace trauma that increases vulnerability to posttraumatic stress disorders and organisational stressors that lead to burnout. Mental health interventions and organisational change are usually implemented to mitigate these factors. However, little attention is paid to the third leg of police suicide - personal factors (Stuart 2008). Personal factors had a major role to play in the Pune police suicides.

Suicide rates in police

Data on suicide rates for police in India is not available. However, the suicide rate in Pune is more than the national average. This rate is still increasing and is 17.3/100000 as of 2009.

Suicide rates in police personnel vary depending on geography. They can be higher than the general population as in Germany (25/100000 vs 20/100000), the same as the general population as in the US (14.9/100000) or half that of the comparable general population as in Canada (14.1/100000).

Suicide rates in police personnel also vary when calculated over long or short time frames, indicating the influence of clustering. This underlines the need for using longer time frames while studying this population (Loo 2003). A historical survey of police suicide from 1843-1992 in Queensland showed the rates reduced from 60/100000 to 20/100000 (Cantor 1995).

The accuracy and validity of police suicide rates are controversial. Under reporting of police suicide is significant (Violanti 2010). Up to 17% of police deaths in the US are classified as undetermined as compared to 8% for military deaths. Official police suicide rates are less accurate and less valid than suicide rates published for other working populations (Violanti 1996). We have already discussed the reasons and results of underestimating suicide rates in India.

What needs to be done

  1. Personal factors that contribute to suicide need special attention. These factors play alongside the workplace and environmental stressors in police personnel. These include psychiatric illnesses, alcoholism, physical ill health and interpersonal and marital problems. These problems are similar to those of the general population.
  2. An early warning system for stressful police events needs to be implemented. The LEOSS (Law Enforcement Officer Stress Survey) is a short 25-item questionnaire specifically designed to evaluate stress in police personnel (Van Hasselt 2003).
  3. Police personnel need easy access to mental health services. The barriers are formidable; psychiatric evaluation can result in job sanctions, reassignment, restriction of firearm privileges, missed promotions, and stigmatisation (Mazurk 2002). 
Need for more organisational change?

  1. Cantor CH, Tyman R, Slater PJ. A historical survey of police suicide in Queensland, Australia, 1843-1992. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 1995 Winter;25(4):499-507.
  2. Geetha PR, Subbakrishna DK, Channabasavanna SM. Subjecitive well being among police personnel. Indian J. Psychiat., 1998, 40(2), 172-179
  3. Loo R. A meta-analysis of police suicide rates: findings and issues. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 2003 Fall;33(3):313-25.
  4. Marzuk PM, Nock MK, Leon AC, Portera L, Tardiff K. Suicide among New York City police officers, 1977-1996. Am J Psychiatry. 2002 Dec;159(12):2069-71.
  5. Stuart H. Suicidality among police. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2008 Sep;21(5):505-9.
  6. Van Hasselt VB, Sheehan DC, Sellers AH, Baker MT, Feiner CA. A behavioral-analytic model for assessing stress in police officers: phase I. Development of the Law Enforcement Officer Stress Survey (LEOSS). Int J Emerg Ment Health. 2003 Spring;5(2):77-84.
  7. Violanti JM, Vena JE, Marshall JR, Petralia S. A comparative evaluation of police suicide rate validity. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 1996 Spring;26(1):79-85.
  8. Violanti JM. Suicide or undetermined? A national assessment of police suicide death classification. Int J Emerg Ment Health. 2010 Spring;12(2):89-94.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Treatment of social anxiety, phobia and self-consciousness

social phobia
Avoiding social situations because they make you self conscious and anxious? You are likely to have a social phobia or social anxiety disorder. One in 10 persons experiences social phobia between the age of  9-33years. The incidence is highest in adolescence (Beesdo et al 2007). Men and women are equally likely to suffer. However, men are more likely to seek treatment when their performance at work is impaired.

Social anxiety usually begins in childhood or early adolescence. There is often a history of childhood shyness. A stressor or humiliating social experience can precipitate the problem. In fact paediatric social phobia affects 5-10% of children. In children it is often associated with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), depression or separation anxiety disorder. Longstanding social phobia increases the risk of depression, substance abuse, and alcoholism later in adulthood.

Recognising social phobia

“My mind went blank during the interview. I break into a sweat, my voice changes. I know what is being asked but I am just not able to concentrate and answer with confidence.”
You have social phobia when you feel that everyone is staring at you or judging you during social interactions. There is a persistent and intense fear of being embarrassed and humiliated by your own actions. This especially occurs in public places such as at work, during office 14meetings, while shopping and at social gatherings. The feelings persist even though rationally you know its not true. These fears may become so severe that they interfere with your work, school or college. They make it hard for you to socialise and make or keep friends.

When you decide to confront these fears and join the party or attend a meeting, you are anxious for days beforehand in anticipation of the dreaded situation. Thoughts of a discussion with your boss make you break into a sweat. You may have panic attacks. Your sleep may be increasingly disturbed as the day of the meeting approaches. Reasoning and reassuring yourself as to the non-threatening nature of the situation brings no relief. You are sweating and can feel your heart race during the encounter. After the encounter you worry about how you were judged for hours afterwards. You feel ashamed that you did not perform better. It becomes easier for you to just stay away from social situations and avoid other people altogether.
“I hesitate to enter the room when the group is already seated. When it comes to my turn to speak my mouth goes dry and I feel choked. I don't speak a word during the meeting even when I have something to contribute.”
People with social anxiety can present with different secondary symptoms
  • Some people cannot write in public (as on a blackboard), their hand will shake, their cheques bounce
  • They experience severe anxiety about eating and drinking in public and often spill food and drop their cutlery
  • Others find it a torture to speak in front of people, they just ‘clam up,’ speak in monosyllables or stammer
  • One of the worst circumstances is meeting people who are authority figures- bosses, supervisors, interviewers at work; or teachers & examiners at school. A job interview is torture, more so because the person knows that he would be good at the job if only he could get through the interview.

People with social phobia avoid situations in which they feel embarrassment and anxiety. Initially they are comfortable with this avoidance. Later, they see avoidance as an impediment to achieving their full potential in their chosen careers. They see their social lives as stale and restricted. To address these problems people mistakenly enrol for ‘personality development’, meditation and other courses. But this is not the shyness of introversion. This shyness results from overwhelming anxiety and embarrassment. They are frustrated when there is no resolution. The underlying social phobia has not been addressed.

In a child with social phobia this anxiety expresses itself as tantrums, crying or just “freezing up”. In school, the child typically does not participate in classroom activities, is reluctant to stand up and answer, has no friends and frequently misses school with complaints of stomach ache or headache. Outside school these children have few or no friends. They may communicate only with family members.
“My daughter doesn't speak a word when we have visitors. The other children are playing together, she has to be pulled out of her room to join them.”

How is social phobia best treated?

The best treatments of social anxiety include
  1. Medication: is usually for a limited period, under supervision. Do not stop taking medication abruptly. Discuss any side effects, if any, with your psychiatrist.
  2. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – CBT: and systematic desensitisation properly administered for 6-12 sessions can produce long lasting, permanent relief. You have to be motivated to persist in the practice of the simple methods and techniques that are explained to you. Do not use any advice available online without due thought and discussion with your psychiatrist

What you can do for a family member with social phobia

  • Be supportive. Help the individual seek psychiatric treatment. Many a career has been advanced or saved by a supportive spouse. Family interaction and communication also improves.
  • Don’t trivialise (‘its normal to be nervous when you meet new people, you do not have to go for therapy’).
  • Don’t perpetuate their symptoms (‘let it be, stay at home if you are not feeling well’).
Family support helps during behavioural desensitisation therapy and decreases the social isolation of the individual. Social phobias and anxieties are treatable conditions. Treatment and therapies are effective and easily accessed.

  1. Beesdo K, Bittner A, Pine DS, Stein MB, Höfler M, Lieb R, Wittchen HU. Incidence of social anxiety disorder and the consistent risk for secondary depression in the first three decades of life. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 Aug;64(8):903-12.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sleeplessness, sleep disturbances, insomnia and parasomnias

Sleepless in Pune. Sleeplessness, disturbed sleep, and shift work related sleep problems are interfering with our citizens recovery after a hard days (nights) work. Insomnias and parasomnias are common sleep problems. Once recognised these are treatable.
  • Does it take you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night?
  • Do you wake up too early or frequently at night and have difficulty going back to sleep?
  • Do you feel groggy and lethargic when you wake up?
  • Do you feel drowsy during the day?
  • Do you depend on coffee to get through the day?

If you answer "yes" to any of the above questions; you have a sleep problem. You are not alone. 9-18% of adults suffer from treatable insomnia

What is insomnia?

The inability to fall asleep or remain asleep is insomnia (Latin for ‘no sleep’). In a broader sense insomnia is the inability to get the amount of sleep you need to wake up feeling refreshed.

How much sleep do you need?
As a rule of thumb an adult requires 7-9 hours of sleep. However individual needs differ. You can gauge how much sleep you require by monitoring your own response to different amounts of sleep. Are you productive, healthy and happy on 7 hours sleep or does it require 9 hours of sleep to make you feel good?

What are the effects of chronic insomnia?
Sleeping too little inhibits productivity, ability to remember & consolidate information (cognitive impairment). Chronic insomnia also has serious health consequences and can jeopardize your safety and those of people near you.

Treating insomnia

  1. The first step to treating insomnia is to determine whether the insomnia is Primary i.e it is occurring independently from other disorders or Secondary i.e due to other associated medical conditions, (most importantly due to psychiatric disorders such as stress, depression, anxiety and panic disorder). The underlying condition needs to be addressed for the treatment to be effective.
    That is why our assessment includes a medical history, and a physical examination along with your sleep history and daily routine.
  2. Behavioural therapy is part of any treatment for insomnia. This includes:
    • Stimulus Control Therapy
    • Cognitive therapy
    • Sleep Restriction Therapy
  3. Medication most commonly used in treatment for sleep problems. It should be taken under medical supervision, after evaluation, and with appropriate sleep promoting practices.

Self medication and OTC drugs

Why you should avoid them
Medications which help induce and maintain sleep (sedatives and hypnotics) are prescription drugs the world over and for good reason. They can sometimes cause confusion, headaches, memory problems, daytime drowsiness leading to accidents at work and on the road, rebound insomnia when stopped suddenly after continued use. Many have drug interactions and some are addicting. You may develop tolerance and require larger doses.

Don’t let a pharmacist prescribe you a “safe” hypnotic. Consult a doctor who can treat your insomnia and the underlying cause. Follow your doctor’s instructions strictly about drug dosage, timing & duration and follow good sleep practices.

Alcohol and Sleep

Alcohol may help you to relax and thereby decrease the time taken to fall asleep, however sleep later in the night is fragmented and of poor quality. Continued use of alcohol can destroy normal sleep.

Shift work related sleep disorder

Shift work related sleep problems occur due to a lack of synchrony between the individual’s internal biological clock and the desired sleep-wake cycle. Frequently changing shifts, change from night or evening to daytime shifts are associated with greater sleep disorders.

The sleep disorder can vary from excessive sleepiness during the ‘wake’ period, to insomnia during the ‘sleep’ cycle. It is further aggravated by social commitments during weekends. The unsatisfactory quantity, quality and timing of sleep can cause marked distress and interference in daily functioning and living.

Parasomnias (sleep disturbing behaviours)


Repeated awakening from sleep with detailed and vivid recall of intensely frightening dreams. A major stressful life event precedes the onset in 60% of cases.

Sleep terrors

Repeated occasions of awakening from sleep beginning with a cry or scream and signs of extreme fright (sweating, rapid breathing, pounding heart) but with no recall of the content of dreams.


Repeated episodes of rising from bed and walking about for several minutes. The child has a blank, staring face, is relatively unresponsive and can be awakened only with considerable difficulty. Upon awakening there is no memory of the event.

Bedwetting or Sleep enuresis

Associated with severe embarrassment, shame and guilt, leading to lifelong psychosocial impairment. More common in children but also seen in 1% of the adult population, properly administered behavioural therapy with judicious medication is effective.

Principles of good sleep practice

You don't need to follow all the points at one shot. Select two or three of them that appeal to you. The first point is essential.
  • Set the alarm clock for a particular time and get up no matter how tired you are
  • Establish routine times for retiring and waking
  • Engage in quiet activities for about an hour or so before bedtime. Follow a relaxing bedtime routine and reduce ambient lighting 1 hour before bedtime
  • Avoid engaging in stressful activities or unpleasant tasks near bedtime
  • Avoid eating large meals and limit fluid intake immediately before bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine for at least 6 hours before bedtime
  • Exercise regularly but avoid exercising at least 3 hours before bedtime
  • Make your environment right, i.e. your bedroom should be quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex, not for work or watching TV
  • Avoid daytime naps