Law enforcement officers are under an immense amount of stress on a daily basis. Due to the dangerous nature of their work, stress and PTSD can be common occurrences among police. With constant stresses, public scrutiny, and a stigma that surrounds reaching out for mental health support, many officers may attempt to self-medicate their stresses to give their brains a break from this persistent sense of danger, with alcohol being a common avenue for self-medication. Left unchecked, these coping strategies can create even more stress, as well as the risk of addiction, ultimately adding more danger to the already fragile nature of their work. Talking about the common presence of alcoholism in law enforcement officers and how it relates to depression in law enforcement or PTSD in law enforcement statistics is just the first step towards helping officers receive help for themselves while they continue to support, serve, and protect their communities.
Substance Abuse in Law Enforcement Is More Common Than It Feels
Suffering from an addiction to alcohol or drugs is an incredibly isolating experience. It is common for those who suffer from these diseases to wall themselves off, even from family and loved ones, and try to cope with the issue on their own. Whether through shame or a belief that nobody can understand the daily struggles that someone goes through, isolation can quickly set in. However, substance abuse is more common among law enforcement officers than it may feel, with “surveys [suggesting] that as many as 30 percent of those in first responder professions may be struggling with substance abuse,” according to the American Addiction Centers. Police alcoholism is an issue that needs to be addressed for the health of our officers as well as the betterment of the community they serve.
Whether it is drugs or alcohol, many officers may turn to substances to help them ease their mental state or cope with their stresses or PTSD. However, even if the problem is more widespread than many would let on, learning what each person can do about it is still a monumental task. Acknowledging that our law enforcement officers need support means understanding exactly how much stress they are under and deconstructing the stigmas that surround words like “addiction” and “recovery” in colloquial discourse as well as within first responder communities themselves.
Understanding the Unique Stresses of Law Enforcement
Law enforcement officers have difficult and dangerous jobs. Many communities may view police as symbols of unyielding protection who do the job because they have the strength and willpower to overcome any challenge.
However, to begin to address depression in law enforcement or alcoholism in law enforcement, it is important to understand the unique stresses that cops are under daily.
No law enforcement officer starts their day by waking up and making a plan to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Rather, it can begin as a coping mechanism for those who are regularly exposed to life-threatening situations who also have no other outlet in which to express the mental toll that such a line of work has on the individual.
Daily Physical Dangers
Police are exposed to any number of potential dangers through the course of even a single day. Armed violence, domestic abuse calls, or traffic stops — no officer can ever be entirely certain how an event will play out. As a result, officers are always in a degree of physical danger. Not only can the physical damage that may occur as a result of a dangerous encounter take a mental toll, but the constant need to prepare oneself to be in physical danger can cause an intense amount of mental and emotional stress on someone if they are asked to always put their own physical and mental wellbeing aside for the people in their communities.
Injuries can be a common occurrence in such a dangerous line of work, and suffering from an injury is often even more detrimental than just the physical damage. Feelings of shame or guilt may accompany the scar as officers may feel they have let down their colleagues if the injury causes them to be out on leave. Some may also express guilt in themselves as they wonder if there was something else they could have done to ensure that all people emerged safely from a situation, themselves included. Not only can all of these stresses cause someone to seek an escape through drugs or alcohol, but they can also be major contributing factors in developing depression, further compounding the daily struggles that a cop may face.
Police are always under the constant watchful eyes of their communities, and even officers who continue to hold the betterment of their communities at heart are not immune to the stresses that this can put on even routine operations. Police must constantly be aware of their actions, body language, and careful with their words to ensure they can communicate in any given situation without leaving room for misconception to prevent public backlash. Having to constantly double-check every word that someone speaks can be immensely stressful, and can introduce feelings of betrayal or disrespect from the very communities they are actively protecting.
Physical and Mental Fatigue
Law enforcement officers are often tasked with working long shifts and overtime, with some shifts lasting 10 or 12 hours. It is common for officers to work several days in a row before taking a few days off. This kind of schedule can put a lot of stress on the body if it does not receive the necessary breaks it needs to maintain a healthy physical and mental state. Officers operating on low energy levels while also being asked to engage in potentially dangerous situations is a recipe for stress and PTSD, leaving these law enforcement officers searching for any outlet they can to help relieve them of some of this stress, including alcohol.
Why Officers May Turn to Alcohol
Experiencing stress and PTSD symptoms regularly is exhausting, and reaching out for professional help is essential in coping with any issue that may continue to affect someone’s mental health, even after the event has occurred. However, reaching out for professional help can be a difficult option to pursue as many officers may fear the stigmas that surround words like “addiction,” “recovery,” or “therapy,” even if they are aware that the professional services would benefit them.
Thoughts of professional or personal repercussions may be present, as well as feelings of shame or guilt when addressing the idea that they may need help. All of these factors can compound and create a very dangerous situation for one’s mental health, leading officers to search for release in any other way. Alcohol can be a quick-acting, available relief that isn’t stigmatized by their fellow officers and can begin one’s journey to alcoholism if left unchecked. Due to the unique personal stresses and professional work environment, law enforcement officers drinking, or cops doing drugs, can often go unaddressed until addiction has begun to develop.
The Cycle Created by Alcohol for Law Enforcement Officers
Police officers and alcoholism can be dangerously linked, creating a cycle that causes more stress for a police officer in the field and perpetuates a person’s need for an emotional outlet. The isolation that is felt as a result of a developing addiction can make reaching out even more difficult, but there are several other dangers involved with an officer who is finding release by using alcohol.
Alcohol impairs one’s ability to make clear decisions. For a law enforcement officer, the ability to make rationalized decisions is paramount as they are tasked with their safety and the safety of colleagues and civilians they are employed to protect.
Whether someone is actively under the influence, experiencing a hangover, or are even having their thoughts interrupted with where they are going to find their next drink, the effects of alcohol can introduce doubt or otherwise cloud someone’s mind during high-stress situations, leading to mistakes in the field. These mistakes can put oneself or others in danger if they are navigating a fragile situation, or may further lead to personal issues from the public, depending on how they handle each situation. These added factors create a cycle where someone is stressed at work because of their drinking and their profession, so they feel an increased need to drink to calm down. Such a cycle is incredibly dangerous for all involved. However, addressing this cycle begins by acknowledging the changes that need to be made on personal and professional fronts to effectively understand the prevalence of alcoholism in the police.
Change Begins with a Conversation
Facing the challenges of stress, PTSD, and alcoholism in law enforcement communities begin by having a conversation. For officers, this can mean finding a person or group where someone can let down their guard and genuinely address the stresses they face, as well as the coping mechanisms they employ. Family members typically make a great starting point for this as they may already be used to the human side of an officer that may often get overlooked by the public in favor of images of strength or protection.
However, addressing alcoholism in law enforcement also means understanding that an officer may have many colleagues who are suffering from similar issues of addiction or PTSD. Finding peers who are more receptive to these issues can begin to deconstruct the stigma surrounding getting help, and may birth entire support groups based around these shared experiences. Having a feeling of understanding from peers can normalize these issues, and encourage other officers to consider their health, creating a team that is both effective in the field, as well as supportive on the homefront. Team leaders and captains can also facilitate this conversation by addressing these issues publicly and providing support tools or recommendations on places where there are professionals who understand the unique trials that law enforcement officers have to overcome every day.
Addressing police substance abuse means understanding it is a shared issue that affects more than a single person. For law enforcement officers, the stressful and traumatic events faced every day can build up and take their toll on a person’s mental health. Creating healthy, effective outlets for these individuals to take care of themselves in the same way they take care of their communities is crucial both for their health and safety, as well as the safety of those under their protection. Deconstructing stigmas about these issues starts with a single conversation, and there is specialized help available to cops to address their specific struggles in their professional lives. However, it is a necessary conversation that can help challenge substance use in law enforcement officers and lead to a healthier lifestyle for the individual and a healthier community for all.