Officers and substance abuse
November 15, 2022 By Dr. Jayasudha Gude
The hidden epidemic
Being a law enforcement officer comes with a variety of risks. The world is changing and the escalating anger and violence—among other issues—provide an environment that is often difficult to navigate. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma and a myriad of other existing or forgotten mental health conditions can surface when a person is exhausted and overworked. Traditionally, police officers don’t seek counselling or admit to substance abuse problems because of stigmas that still surround those issues. This fear can lead to a host of mental health issues.
What could lead to substance abuse in law enforcement officers?
People who deal with emergencies and catastrophic situations usually don’t walk away unscathed. Witnessing injury, death and suicide takes a toll and creates physical, emotional and mental complications. There is no training that can fully prepare our emergency response officers for the daily stress and heartbreaking circumstances that arise. The tragedy of 9/11 is a prime example. About 51 per cent of rescue and recovery workers who responded to the event required a mental health evaluation and 20 per cent experienced PTSD symptoms.1
Unfortunately, police officers face hatred and distrust from the community in many areas. On top of that, the job involves life-or-death choices that must be made in an instant and could result in legal and personal liabilities if handled incorrectly. If a law enforcement officer is facing personal troubles like divorce, relationship, financial or legal issues, the weight of it all becomes too heavy.
In addition, the shift work common to law enforcement officers means there is little time for friends and family. Days and nights get mixed up and long hours equate to unclear thinking and depression. Missing holidays and birthdays can create discord within the family unit.
This substance abuse is seen in law enforcement officers across the globe. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S. recently citedss2 several common components of law enforcement, military, and firefighters who commit suicide: job-related challenges, PTSD due to job exposures, intimacy inconsistencies with loved ones, mental health counseling, and alcohol and substance abuse.3
Prevalence of substance abuse in law enforcement officers
Suffering job-related injuries is part of being a cop. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2014, law enforcement ranked sixth among occupations with the highest risk for injury.4 With this comes the realization that about 65 to 85 per cent of the claims come with a prescription for opioid pain relievers. This type of drug is extremely easy to become addicted to, especially when a patient is experiencing pain and their prescription use isn’t closely monitored.
Opioids aren’t the only culprit; alcoholism is a frequent concern. According to 2010-14 NSDUH data, 30.3 per cent of law enforcement officers binge drink. Binge drinking for a man is defined as drinking five or more drinks and, for a woman, four or more in one evening or day.
Suicides are on the rise as well. Between January 1, 2016, and December 31, 2020, Blue Help noted 919 suicides among law enforcement and security officers.5
What can be done?
It’s a travesty that the numbers for substance abuse and suicide are so high within the industry. That is why, in 2020, a legislation entitled Public Law 116-143, S. 2746, Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act (LESDCA) was enacted. This new law provides resources to track data about suicide. With more knowledge, suicidal ideation in law enforcement at the federal, state, tribal and local level, 911 operators and corrections officers, can be better understood and prevented.
The National Officer Safety Initiative published a list of preventative measures.2 These include:
- Family and friend support – people with loved ones are less likely to commit suicide.
- Coping skills – dealing with the core issue is more effective than substance use.
- Managerial changes – treating all with honor and respect provides better moral and comradery.
- Exposure to mental and wellness services – the availability of counseling removes barriers to the use of these.
- Flexible scheduling – allowing officers to have more flexibility in scheduling and shorter shifts means they are more available for time with family and friends. It also enables better sleep patterns.
- Department social connections – creating a positive, family-oriented department starts with social connections.
The hidden epidemic of substance abuse among law enforcement officers needs to come to the surface. Police departments must remove stigmas about mental health and ensure that officers feel comfortable seeking help. The solution is a group effort and entails the help of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division along with the U.S. Attorney General. Both of these agencies will collect and organize the data to develop programs to save lives.
- Hodge, Rutkow, Corcoran. “A Hidden Epidemic: Assessing The Legal Environment Underlying Mental And Behavioral Health Conditions In Emergencies.” Accessed at jhsph.edu
- “Preventing Suicide Among Law Enforcement Officers: An Issue Brief.” Accessed at theiacp.org
- “Better Mental Health Care Needed for Law Enforcement.” Accessed at sunshinebehavioralhealth.com
- Miller, Galvin. “Assessing and Responding To Substance Misuse In Law Enforcement.” Accessed at law.siu.edu
- Blue H.E.L.P. Joins F.B.I. in Implementation of the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act. Accessed at bluehelp.org
Dr. Jayasudha Gude MD, graduated from NTR University of health sciences in 2010 in India. After graduating, she worked in India for about a year and moved to the United States in 2012. She worked as a research scholar at Stanford university and had extensive clinical experience in the fields of Medicine and Psychiatry. Currently she is working as a research volunteer and actively involved in crisis counseling.
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