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Burden of Stress Burns Hole of Desperation in Hearts of SA's Police

1 Feb 2006

By Tamar Kahn

A few weeks ago Johannesburg metro police officer Themba Mabanga climbed into his patrol car, and shot himself with his service pistol. He left no suicide note explaining his last desperate act, leaving his colleagues and family to try to puzzle out the reasons for the tragedy.

Sadly, Mabanga's story is not uncommon in SA, where police suicides and family murders occur with distressing frequency.

Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqukula told Parliament last year that 89 police officers had committed suicide in 2004-05, equivalent to a suicide rate of 60 per 100000 - triple the rate for the general population.

And being in a relationship with a policeman is a significant risk factor for being murdered by one's intimate partner, according to researcher Lisa Vetten, who presented her findings on femicide at the World Health Organisation injuries conference in Durban last year.

Analysis of 941 intimate partner murders involving guns in Gauteng between 1990 and 1999 showed that a woman was nine times more likely to be killed in this manner if her boyfriend or husband worked in the police, armed forces or security industry than if her partner worked in another profession.

Being married, and the relationship ending also increased the risk of murder by an armed partner.

The problem has prompted the South African Police Service (SAPS) to develop a campaign that will over, the next few months, try to persuade stressed law-enforcement officers to seek psychological help, and to change perceptions that they prejudice their careers by doing so.

"We are embarking on a station-by-station road show to say to our people it's okay to cry, it's okay to feel the heat, and it's okay for a policeman to say: 'I can't handle it any more'," says assistant commissioner Caroline Namoyi, who heads the SAPS Employee Assistance Services (EAS). "After all, who will prevent crime if everyone succumbs to stress and gets burnt out?"

SAPS already has stress management programmes in place, but they are failing to deliver the desired results, partly because crime fighters fear ridicule from their commanders and colleagues and worry that seeking help at work will be regarded as a sign of weakness and damage their career prospects, says Namoyi.

EAS is short of neither money nor staff, although, like most public institutions, it battles high turnover rates among its 136 psychologists, 250 social workers and 170 chaplains, says Namoyi.

The big problem is that many police officers are sceptical that consultations with these staff will remain confidential, opting instead to use their Polmed medical scheme benefits to pay for assistance in the private sector, she says.

The communication campaign will emphasise that any dealings a police officer has with a counsellor will remain confidential.

Although SAPS issued a directive more than five years ago stipulating that the records of police officers seeking assistance for stress and other psychological difficulties should be omitted from their personnel files, to date few police officers are convinced that they can trust the in-house services, Namoyi says. "We will be saying to our people: 'Tell us who breaches confidentiality. They will be dealt with severely.'"

EAS already offers programmes on financial planning, HIV/AIDS awareness, stress management, self-management, suicide prevention, substance dependence and marriage "enrichment".

These interventions are now included in the basic training given to new police recruits and are offered free of charge to all staff.

However, take-up has to date been disappointing, a problem the new communications strategy will seek to address, says Namoyi.

SAPS declined to provide Business Day with further detail on the numbers of policemen who have sought in-house counselling, saying such information is confidential.

Namoyi says the police force does not regard outsourcing psychological services as a viable option because outsiders who are not schooled in the intricacies of police work are unlikely to be trusted by wary officers.

"The SAPS is a unique environment," says Namoyi. "You have to understand what makes us tick. We are trained to be suspicious. Take intelligence work, where you are subjected to really rigorous levels of stress - you wouldn't want to interact with a non-SAPS person (and expose yourself and your colleagues)," she says.

While Namoyi agrees that SA's crime fighters need psychosocial support, she questions whether their tough jobs are solely to blame for the high rates of suicide and family murder among SAPS employees. She does not have research to back up her view, but speculates that 70% of police officers' stress loads flows from their personal lives - relationship troubles or financial difficulties - and that work-related stress is only a small part of the package.

"For some reason whenever a policeman discovers a partner is cheating, and there's blood on the floor, it's attributed to police stress," says Namoyi.

One reason for the high rate of suicides and family murders among police officers may be their ready access to weapons, she suggests.

Police officers generally do not hand in their guns when they go off duty. Service weapons are supposed to be kept in a safe on home premises, but they are clearly all too readily at hand when violent disputes occur between police officers and their loved ones.

Given the violent nature of South African society, one can only speculate as to whether the police family murder rate would indeed fall if they had limited access to guns.

This story is part of an occasional series on police and mental health, supported by a fellowship from the US-based Carter Centre in Atlanta. If you have comments on the story, or one of your own to tell, contact the reporter at

Copyright 2006. Used with permission from Business Day.

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