Police officers have high-stress jobs where they can be exposed to life-threatening scenarios or harrowing events. As with other people in stressful occupations, people in the law enforcement community struggle with mental health issues and substance use disorders at higher rates than the general population. On top of the stress, they may also be exposed to high drug availability and a culture that widely incorporates and accepts coping with alcohol use.
Alcoholism and drug misuse are serious problems in the United States, but disproportionately among police officers. These issues can lead to lasting problems for law enforcement officers and their loved ones. Addiction is a chronic disease that can take over a person’s life, affecting their health, relationships, and finances. However, it can be effectively treated with the right care.
Learn more about drug and alcohol use among law enforcement officers and how it can be addressed.
Police officers struggle with drug and alcohol misuse at higher rates than the general public. Like military service members, they usually opt for legal drugs of choice such as alcohol rather than illicit drugs. However, alcoholism represents a significant problem in the law enforcement community.
Around a fourth of law enforcement officers struggles with some form of substance use disorder. The percentage of officers with drug and alcohol use issues is between 20 and 30 percent, which is significantly more than 10 percent of people in the general population with a substance use issue.
Police officers also struggle with mental health issues that could be related to the high rate of substance use problems as officers self-medicate with alcohol or other substances. In a 2020 survey of 434 officers, 12 percent reported receiving a mental health diagnosis at some point in the past, and 26 percent reported current mental health-related symptoms. Also, 17 percent reported seeking mental health treatment in the 12 months before the survey. Some also experienced suicidal ideations.
Though there may be a history of mental health stigma in some law enforcement communities, as there is for many people in the general population, recent studies have found a willingness to seek help among officers. The 2020 survey found that even though only a small percentage sought mental health assistance, most officers were interested and willing to seek treatment.
Stress is a significant risk factor in a wide variety of mental health issues, and it can often lead to substance use issues and relapse. Police officers may be exposed to several different types of stress over long periods. This can include physical stress as a result of physically demanding tasks and long work hours. It can involve psychosocial stress related to job pressure and traumatic events. And it may involve anticipatory stress, which is worrying about the future.
Police officers and other first responders may also be exposed to traumatic events that can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their duty requires them to respond to instances of domestic violence, child abuse, homicides, and deadly accidents routinely. Plus, officers may often find themselves in harm’s way directly.
A single traumatic event experienced or witnessed is enough for many people to develop post-traumatic issues, but police may experience these harrowing events many times during a career. This can lead to post-traumatic stress, anxiety disorders, and depression.
Alcohol is often used as a way to self-medicate and as a social method to blow off steam and to bond with friends and coworkers. However, repeated binging or consistent alcohol misuse can lead to chemical dependence and addiction. What starts as social drinking or drug use can turn to self-medication when you start using at odd times and by yourself.
Substance use disorders are chronic diseases that affect the brain. If they are left unchecked, they can have a negative impact on many aspects of your life. Active addiction can increase your risk of experiencing an overdose or developing long-term adverse effects on your health. Addiction is also linked to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and other disorders. It can also affect your socioeconomic status.
Managing an addiction often leads to spending more time using the drug or being under the effects of the drug, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Some officers might worry that addressing a substance use problem could damage their career. But a substance use disorder left untreated can create financial and career instability.
However, addiction can be treated and managed with effective evidence-based approaches. Treatment begins with an intake and assessment process that is used to determine the level of care you need in addiction treatment. Medically managed detox is the highest level of care, as it involves 24-hour medical treatment. Detox is particularly used to treat withdrawal, which can sometimes be dangerous.
After detox, you could enter inpatient treatment with medical or clinical monitoring. If you can live on your own without threatening your safety or sobriety, you may move on to outpatient treatment. Through the treatment process, you’ll go through therapies that depend on your specific needs.
Police officers and police departments should take mental health issues seriously, and many have already put measures in place to help officers in need. For instance, many officers are required to go through critical incident stress debriefings (CISD) after a potentially traumatic event.
These debriefings involve interviews with mental health professionals designed to help officers process events in a healthy way. However, some find these debriefings intrusive and distressing. According to a SAMHSA report, some firefighters said they preferred peer support and crew bonding to help deal with feelings and emotions after incidents.
Likewise, officers should take this into account when talking to coworkers and other colleagues. Putting away the stigma of mental health problems in favor of peer support may help safeguard the mental health of police officers and improve police departments as a whole. It’s also important to note that officers who bond with their colleagues through drinking and social gatherings should be aware of the signs of self-medication.
Signs may include feeling a need to get drunk, getting drunk in response to a negative event, frequent binge drinking, asocial drinking, and drinking at odd hours of early in the morning. Recognizing and addressing these signs in yourself or others may help prevent a severe substance use disorder.
The SAMHSA report also identifies other risk and protective factors before, during, and after events and incidents. Adequate training and realistic expectations from leaders can go a long way in protecting officers before an event. Feeling overwhelmed and unprepared may increase an officer’s likelihood of developing mental health problems. Getting plenty of sleep, working reasonable hours, and taking vacations can help with mental burnout.
During an event, proximity to the epicenter of a disaster or incident and the length of time spent on the site were related to the likelihood of developing mental health problems. Managing an officer’s exposure to a disaster as much as possible could decrease their mental health risk.
After an event, both ignoring the event and dealing with it in an unhealthy way were associated with worse mental health outcomes. For instance, spending more than a few hours watching coverage of the incident on TV can actually worsen an officer’s mental health status. Instead, talking about it with peers or mental health professionals could lead to positive mental health outcomes.
American Psychiatric Association. (2017, January). What Is Addiction? from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction
Cidambi, I., Ph.D. (2018, March 30). Police and Addiction. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sure-recovery/201803/police-and-addiction
Jetelina, K. K., Ph.D. (2020, October 07). Prevalence of Mental Illnesses and Mental Health Care Use Among Police Officers. from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/article-abstract/2771400
Sinha, R. (2008, October). Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2732004/
SAMHSA. (2018, May). Disaster Technical Assistance Center Supplemental Research Bulletin. from https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/dtac/supplementalresearchbulletin-firstresponders-may2018.pdf