Every day police officers face a unique set of stressors that can make them more vulnerable to mental illness and addiction. Life and death situations can occur without warning and require immediate action from the trained officers serving the nation’s cities, suburbs, towns, villages, and rural areas.
Without proper coping mechanisms, police officers may sink into addiction and develop mental health issues; and, because of a blue line culture of stoicism and silence, those in law enforcement may be more reticent to ask for help.
Yet, help is what they need. It is reassuring that police officers’ mental health is now the focus of an increasing number of addiction and mental health treatment programs.
What Makes the Stressors of Police Officers Unique?
They’re on the front lines daily, often at significant risk to their safety. Yet, police officers are trained to advance into danger, regardless of consequences to themselves. This is akin to soldiers marching into battle, knowing there’s a risk they’ll encounter violence, aggression, tragedy, anguish, and pain. Some of this is directed at police officers, while some occurs because of the situations they respond to on a 911 call. Whatever the origin, police officers are duty-bound to put themselves in harms’ way for the good of others.
Their motto is “To protect and serve,” and people still need to be protected and served. Murders, assaults, domestic violence, robberies, traffic accidents, natural disasters, drug overdoses, child abuse, rapes and other crimes continue to occur. Despite falling out of favor with some elements of society, people want to be able to count on law enforcement as they always have. And police officers who remain on the job stand ready to carry out their sworn duties. They still carry the burden of magnified stressors they must somehow address.
Unique occupational demands that police officers have that can trigger alcohol use include:
- Authoritarianism – where the officers’ behavior, governed by a set of regulations, makes them feel like they don’t have control.
- Depersonalization – reacting unemotionally to everyday job stresses.
- Organizational protection – the protections in place within the law enforcement agencies to protect it and its officers from criticism.
- Danger preparation – this includes the stress that is related to police officers knowing that their lives are constantly in potential danger.
Statistics for This Occupation and Mental Health/Substance Abuse
The Ruderman Family Foundation, in a 2018 study of police officer’s mental health problems, found some disturbing results.
- Estimates of PTSD and depression among police officers with mental illness range from 7-35 percent.
- The study found that 47 percent of police officers screened positive for PTSD. That was a prevalence 9-10 times greater than the general population.
- Also, 29 percent had moderate to severe anxiety. That’s two times greater than in the general population.
- Officers with 5-10 years of law enforcement experience have a more heightened risk for symptoms of depression and PTSD. This is compared to those with less than 5 or more than 10 years on the job.
- Lastly, 31 percent of the police officers had moderate to very severe depression, about five times greater than the general population.
According to estimates published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, excessive alcohol use in police officers ranges from 25-50 percent.
Law Enforcement Resistance to Seeking Help
Among law enforcement, there’s strong resistance to seeking help. Police officers with mental illness, especially, don’t want to voluntarily ask for assistance. Why? According to the Ruderman Family Foundation study, police officers cited the following reasons for why they’re reluctant to seek help:
- Stigma over seeking help
- Fear that seeking assistance shows a sign of personal weakness
- Fear of job loss
- Fear of workplace repercussions
Police Officers’ Mental Health Problems and Needs
Many studies have shown that the incidence of multiple forms of mental illness among police officers is higher than in civilians. Police officers with mental illness (including alcohol abuse, PTSD and depression) can suffer devastating consequences. These include diminished capacity at work and, tragically, increased suicide risk. Depression in police officers tends to increase their sense of hopelessness, the lead predictor for suicide. The current climate of anti-police sentiment and overt violence toward law enforcement can exacerbate this hopelessness.
The more trauma police officers experience witnessing or actively involved in dealing with traumatic situations, the greater the likelihood they’ll develop PTSD. The “tough guy” attitude prevalent among law enforcement only exacerbates the effects of PTSD, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Instead, individuals seek unhealthy means of coping with the overwhelming stressors. So, too, is the feeling that it’s necessary to move on too quickly after a traumatic event. That just minimizes the PTSD, doing nothing to resolve it.
For those struggling with PTSD, certain behavioral therapies and medications may help:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)
Police officers’ mental health problems will not magically go away on their own. Meanwhile, the officers, their colleagues and everyone they encounter can be affected by untreated mental health problems.
Substance Misuse Among Police Officers
Shrugging off the violence, senseless death, injury, and mental anguish that police officers witness can be difficult. For many, alcohol and drugs serve as convenient coping mechanisms. This may help dampen or dull depression or anxiety but temporarily. Drinking helps by coping in the short-term by camouflaging on-the-job stress and trauma. The effects of the alcohol eventually wear off, however, and the original reason for the drinking episode remains.
A study in The American Journal on Addictions found scores indicating lifetime adverse consequences of using alcohol. This included 20.1 percent of male and 18 percent of female officers. Also, 7.8 percent of the study sample met the criteria for probable lifetime alcohol abuse or dependence. Interestingly, female officers drank as much as their male counterparts and substantially higher than women in the general population. The study authors mentioned the culturally accepted after-work, social drinking rituals among male police officers. Researchers suggested that female officers may feel the need to drink more to compete with their counterparts.
Steps to Seeking Care for Law Enforcement and Mental Health
It’s important to note that substance abuse, depression, PTSD and other mental health problems won’t go away on their own. This isn’t something that can be willed away or ignored. Without proper treatment, the problems will continue to worsen, resulting in ever-escalating negative consequences. However, not just any treatment program will suffice.
Why it’s Important to Seek Care Among a Group that Understands Your Culture
The culture of law enforcement is unlike the civilian experience. Treatment for police officers’ mental health problems is best when provided by professionals with expertise in treating law enforcement. This should take place at a drug and alcohol addiction rehab center.
Officers seeking care for a behavioral, substance use or mental health disorder should look for treatment centers with personalized and comprehensive treatment plans. A program specifically designed for police officers will offer the best reassurance that the treatment personnel will understand the law enforcement culture.
What Routes to Take
In law enforcement agencies, the Human Resources department should be able to connect officers with employee assistance professionals outside the agency who can provide confidential services.
The agencies should also have police counselors with knowledge of police infrastructure, administration, and programming.
A must-have are on-staff mental health professionals who are trained and certified in addiction counseling available for interventions, counseling and referrals.
Another resource to check with is the union.
Also check to see if the law enforcement agency has instituted a peer counseling program. Research shows that peer support groups consisting of fellow officers can be positive behavior models and be an integral part of a successful intervention.
We Can Help
There is no need to suffer continuing pain in silence. You are not alone. At FHE Health, we are accustomed to working with police and other first responders and helping them overcome addiction and mental health disorders, through our specialized Shatterproof First Responders Program. For more information on police officers’ mental health problems and to get confidential answers to your questions, call us today at 833-596-3502. Our team of caring professionals is ready to give you the help you deserve and need.