Substance Abuse in Law Enforcement
The job of law enforcement comes with the potential for trauma and stress that may lead to maladaptive coping responses, such as drug or alcohol use. In fact, substance abuse is a significant concern in law enforcement.1
Substance Use Among Police Officers
Substance abuse and substance use disorders are very serious issues for anyone; when they occur in police officers who have access to lethal means and need to be alert and quick-thinking in the line of duty, the ramifications may be extreme.2 Unfortunately, police officers are no less immune to substance abuse than the rest of society.
Research suggests that alcohol use, in particular, is a concern for officers. It is often viewed as a common way for law enforcement officers to bond. In one study, surveyed officers said their top reasons for drinking alcohol were to relax/relieve tension and to celebrate. 3 One social factor that contributes to substance use disorders in police officers, especially alcohol use disorders, is attempting to fit in with one’s peers. The officers who were found to be most vulnerable to alcohol problems were those who listed “fitting in” as their top reason for drinking with their peers.3
Norms around masculinity may also play a role in substance abuse by police officers. Males make up a large majority (over 87% in 2018) of the police force in the U.S., and expectations associated with being a man include self-reliance, stoicism, and not appearing vulnerable.3 In law enforcement, these same norms tend to be heavily promoted, and officers are pressed to see themselves as problem-solvers rather than people with problems.3 This can lead police officers, especially males, to avoid seeking help and to use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to cope with stress or mental health issues on their own.3
Police officers are also susceptible to incurring injury on the job. Addictive opioid prescriptions to relieve pain may be prescribed, and little follow-up may be taken to ensure that opioids are not used longer than appropriate. Officers who use opioids for long periods of time to cope with pain may be at risk of becoming dependent on and addicted to these medications.2
Other risk factors for substance abuse among police officers include:1,2
- Reacting to job stress without emotion.
- Having a boss who acts in an authoritarian manner.
- Institutional protection of officers from criticism.
- Constant awareness of the potential dangers of the job.
- Suffering injury from violence while on duty.
- Public unrest and hostility toward the force.
Unfortunately, officers who need help for substance use disorders often avoid coming forward for help in fear of hurting their careers.4
Emotional Stress and Law Enforcement
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), first responders (such as police officers and 911 dispatchers) are notably at-risk for emotional distress that may lead to substance abuse. The first responders who are most vulnerable include those who:5
- Have experienced life-threatening situations.
- Have been separated from loved ones for long periods of time.
- Have had deployments that caused disruptions in their home life or their job.
- Have been traumatized by some type of exposure to difficult stories of loss or survival. (E.g., one study found a significant increase in hazardous drinking in police officers who were involved in relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.6)
Unfortunately, first responders are often the last to look for help to address work-related stress,5 which can put them at risk for adopting negative coping styles.1,5 Warning signs that a first responder is suffering from emotional distress include:
- Experiencing fear, terror, anger or frustration in potentially dangerous or life-threatening situations.
- Seeming confused and having trouble thinking clearly or solving problems.
- Taking unnecessary risks such as not wearing protective equipment or neglecting to follow orders.
- Acting increasingly hostile with peers, blaming others, or refusing to support other officers.
- Experiencing physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, headaches, muscle tension, and tremors.
Mental Health Risks in Law Enforcement
Being a law enforcement officer comes with a certain amount of mental health risk due to the dangers they face on the job as well as the potential for exposure to:6
- Environmental hazards.
- Critical incidents (a risk factor for both PTSD and problematic drinking3.
- Traumatic events.
One study found that about half of the officers surveyed said they knew another officer who changed after going through a traumatic event.6 One of the most notable traumatic events for first responders was 9/11. After the attack on the World Trade Center:6
- 11% of police responders reported having PTSD. (Another study found an even higher rate of 12.9%.)
- PTSD rates increased as levels of social support decreased.
Suicide is also a concern for law enforcement officers, with one study finding that half of surveyed officers reported knowing a peer who’d committed suicide.6 The prevalence of suicidal ideation in officers is estimated at over 23% in male officers and at 25% in female officers. Those who suffer from professional burnout have been shown to be most at-risk of suicidal thoughts.6 Research suggests that more officers may die by suicide than in the line of duty.3
Research suggests that more officers may die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Another study linked job stress not only to suicidal ideation in law enforcement officers, but also to depression and anxiety.6 Unfortunately, mental health disorders such as PTSD and depression are associated with higher rates of substance abuse. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), more than one-quarter of those who suffer from serious mental health problems also have problems with drugs or alcohol.7 Among police officers, PTSD is associated with substance-related disorders such as alcohol use disorder.3
Substance abuse can not only worsen mental health symptoms in officers but it may also increase suicide risk. 2 Substance use disorders are second only to mental health disorders among the risk factors for suicide in the general population.3 A newsletter of the Police Executive Research Forum in 2012 had several police executives in different states expressing concern over alcohol abuse in law enforcement and its role in the suicide deaths of officers.4
Signs of Substance Abuse in Law Enforcement Officers
Signs that a fellow officer may be struggling with alcohol or other drug abuse include:8,9
- Obvious declines in work productivity/performance.
- Making excuses for problems at work.
- Excessive absenteeism.
- Calling in sick in noticeable patterns such as every Friday or Monday.
- Constantly being late.
- Acting more withdrawn/isolated.
- Unexplained financial problems.
- Strained relationships with coworkers.
- Increase in belligerence or argumentative behavior (may be more likely in the morning and after weekends).
- Mood changes.
- Sleeping on duty.
- Avoiding contact with supervisors.
Substance abuse by police officers has significant repercussions; however, reporting it may be discouraged by the culture of law enforcement. The “code of silence” in the profession can enable substance abuse by officers,10 and the problem may not be addressed until it has gotten out of hand. It is important to remember that early intervention of drug or alcohol abuse can lead to better outcomes.11 Getting help early can be lifesaving.
It is important that police officers with substance use disorders, just like anyone with a substance use disorder, get professional treatment to:
- Learn new coping strategies.
- Understand the issues that drive their substance use.
- Learn about the triggers that affect them.
- Develop a program of relapse prevention.
- Create an aftercare program to keep them engaged in recovery as a part of their overall treatment program.
Sunrise House has two sister facilities in Las Vegas, NV and Hollywood, FL that specifically support law enforcement officers who are struggling in specialized programs developed for first responders and veterans. These programs provide comprehensive substance abuse treatment that takes into account the unique experiences and needs of these individuals. Law enforcement officers tend to be a pretty tight-knit group, and the first responder program is designed so that program participants work through treatment together as one group, separate from the rest of the patients in these facilities. Topics covered in the first responders program include but are not limited to:
- The culture of first responders.
- The impact of stress.
- Post-traumatic responses.
If you or an officer you know is struggling with alcohol or other drugs, we are here 24/7 at to discuss how we can help. Every call is 100% confidential so you’ll never have to worry about your privacy when you want to talk through your options for treatment.
- Cross, C. L., Ph.D and Ashley, L. Ed.S. (2004). Police Trauma and Addiction: Coping With the Dangers of the Job. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 73(10), 24-32.
- Miller, T.R. and Galvin, D.M. (2016). ASSESSING AND RESPONDING TO SUBSTANCE MISUSE IN LAW ENFORCEMENT. Southern Illinois University Law Journal, 475–499.
- National Officer Safety Initiatives. (2018). PREVENTING SUICIDE AMONG LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS: AN ISSUE BRIEF.
- Police Executive Research Forum. (2012). Subject to Debate: Police Chiefs Discuss a Tough Issue: Alcohol and Drug Abuse by Officers.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Emotional Distress.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). First Responders: Behavioral Health Concerns, Emergency Response, and Trauma.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2019). Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders.
- International Association of Chiefs of Police. (n.d.). Opioid Use Disorders Among Police and Public Safety Personnel: What Law Enforcement Leaders Need to Know.
- U.S. Office of Personnel Management. (n.d.). Work-Life.
- National Institute of Ethics. (2000). POLICE CODE OF SILENCE: FACTS REVEALED.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2016 Nov. CHAPTER 4, EARLY INTERVENTION, TREATMENT, AND MANAGEMENT OF SUBSTANCE USE DISORDERS.
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