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Alcohol and Mental Health

Alcoholism in Police Officers

June 8, 2024
27 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 8, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 8, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
June 8, 2024
27 min read

With Daily Trauma Taking a Toll on Police, Alcohol Abuse Is Often the Result

  • The daily stress and long-lasting trauma of police work makes law enforcement officers more susceptible to alcohol misuse than the general population. Police culture that emphasizes heavy drinking adds to the problem.
  • We can improve the well-being of police officers by encouraging an open conversation about mental health and changing alcohol habits.
  • Reframe can help you kickstart your alcohol journey, change your habits, and provide you with 24/7 support from others who’ve been where you are and know what it’s like.

In his now famous TEDx Talk, “Why Successful Police Reform Must Start in the Therapist’s Office,” John Monaghan talks about his first case as a police officer. Feeling proud after putting a domestic abuser in the back of his cruiser, Monaghan was brought down a notch by his sergeant, who replied with “Good job, Dick Tracy, but it doesn’t sound like rocket science to me.” In other words, “catching the bad guy” was now business as usual — it was part of the job, and Monaghan did it well, helping people by taking criminals off the street. 

What he didn’t realize was that he would be the one who needed help years later, when the PTSD and substance abuse caught up with him. And Monaghan is far from alone: two to three times as many police officers die by suicide than on the job. As he says, “The silence and the bravado around this is literally killing us.” While some of the repercussions are felt during the years on the force, much of the toll takes place after retirement. “When you retire,” Monaghan explains, “you’re going to hand in your gun, your badge, but that backpack with those pebbles that now feel like boulders, you’re gonna take that with you when you go.”

What is the connection between alcohol, police officers, and mental health? And how can we make changes? Let’s dig deeper.

“The Price They Pay”

A man in uniform sitting at a table with a drink

Law enforcement substance abuse statistics paint a stark picture of the toll police work takes on members of the force. As Karen Rodwill Solomon and Jeffrey M. McGill write in The Price They Pay, research reveals a staggering difference between the numbers of people in the general population who struggle with alcohol and substance abuse and those in law enforcement: 8.2% compared to 23%. 

Moreover, exposure to violence increases the risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Injuries (PTSI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The consequences are dire: the combination of PTSD and substance abuse raises the risk of suicide in law enforcement officers by a factor of 10. As Solomon and McGill conclude, “This small snapshot of research paints a grim picture on how policing can negatively impact those that take up its calling.”

Here’s a more detailed overview from recent studies.

  • Between 20% and 30% of law enforcement officers have a substance abuse problem. Picture four police officers currently patrolling the streets in your neighborhood. One of them is likely struggling with drug or alcohol abuse. Now think about what this means on a larger scale. In 2022, with 708,001 U.S. law enforcement officers employed, those percentages tell us that a lot people were struggling behind the scenes of a job where lives are on the line every single day.
  • Around 17% have felt the consequences of alcohol use on their lives. According to a large-scale study involving urban police officers, over 18% of males and almost 16% of their female counterparts “reported experiencing adverse consequences from alcohol use.” 
  • Almost half admitted to drinking on the job. Another survey (referenced in the study above) found that 40% of 200 officers said they drank while on duty.
  • The heavy drinking patterns are true for both genders. Studies report that both male and female officers binge drink more frequently than the rest of the population.

The trauma and daily stress also takes a toll in other ways.

  • A quarter of all police officers thought about suicide at some point. This devastating statistic shows the true costs of this profession. The suicide rate is one of the highest, exceeding that among firefighters by a factor of 4. The average number of police deaths per year by suicide is 184 and remained steady between 2016 and 2022.
  • Many members of the force end up with PTSD. Studies show that a significant portion (between 7% and 19%) of police officers have symptoms of PTSD. This number is significantly higher compared to 3.5% among the rest of us.

The statistics paint a troubling picture, but what are the reasons behind them? Why does policing take such a heavy toll?

Police, Alcohol, and Mental Health: Exploring the Connection 

As Solomon and McGill write, police officers face the unique challenge of facing “man-made” violence head-on: “While devastation created by nature, such as wildfire, tornadoes, and hurricanes, can be far-reaching and cause cataclysmic losses, the trauma that haunts our dreams and is the most feared is man-made.” And while the rest of us can spend hours looking at YouTube videos or scanning the news for these stories, there is nothing compared to experiencing the darker sides of human nature firsthand on a daily basis.

The overwhelming nature of all this is enough to keep anyone up at night. But when it’s your job to face tragedy without a break (and, at times, without a healthy outlet for the stress that follows), the stakes are much higher.

Unfortunately, the current culture in many police precincts doesn’t allow for such an outlet. Even worse, seeking help might be discouraged, while unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking become the norm. Let’s explore how this happens in more detail.

Daily Risks and “Liquid Courage”

Every profession has daily stressors. Stocks drop in value, printers crash at the worst possible time, and toddlers put gummy bears in the fish tank when nobody’s looking. And, of course, there are higher-stake job woes as well, especially if we perform surgeries, operate heavy machinery, or fly planes for a living.

That said, the nature of police work in particular exposes us to some of the most traumatic aspects of life, sometimes for days on end. They see the pain people inflict on each other and are expected to put their own lives on the line to protect the victims. Sure, it’s their calling, and most of them do it without a second thought. But it takes a toll.

This is where booze comes in — but it also makes the problem worse. TV shows like Law and Order often portray detectives drinking together to take the edge off before a high-stakes chase. The “heroes” (Elliot Stabler, we’re looking at you) seem to sober up on cue and perform their duties perfectly in spite of that shot of whiskey or pint of beer. However, in real life, things are more complicated.

Police officers rush into violent scenes, chase criminals, and run toward gunfire rather than away from it much like their TV counterparts. However, the line between victim and perpetrator can blur, calling for instant decisions that are that much harder to make after a drink. Pressures from the community add an extra layer of stress, often leading to deep-seated guilt and self-doubt.

Added to that are the grueling work hours and the unpredictable (to put it mildly) work schedules, lack of sleep, and overtime shifts. The stress can act as both cause and effect, leading to mental health troubles and drinking, which then become stressors in their own right. In a TV special titled “Beneath the Vest: Conversations About Mental Health,” Pennsylvania Officer Joe Peterson shares how the daily trauma led to his mental health struggles, which in turn spread their own cloud of darkness over his life: “You fight monsters for so long that you become a monster. And I became a monster.”

“Ghosts of the Past” and PTSD

In The Price They Pay, Solomon and McGill write about the consequences of the daily trauma on police officers:

“Acts of violence and depravity committed by one human being on another are personal in nature and leave those affected by them asking the questions, ‘Why did it happen to me?’ or ‘Why did it have to happen at all?’”

Over time, these haunting questions take a heavy toll on the psyche.

Science backs up the idea that past traumas often haunt the present-day lives of police officers. As statistics show, many are at higher risk of PTSD, yet often downplay its significance, even if they’ve experienced it themselves — which is a recipe for trouble.

That said, as Monaghan suggests in his talk, there’s also such a thing as “post-traumatic growth” — the light at the end of the post-traumatic stress tunnel. However, it takes work to get there. Officers need courage to speak up, listen, and accept treatment and support. Unfortunately, that support is often lacking in police culture.

Police Culture: “Drinking and Silencing”

There’s no single “work culture” in any industry, and policing is no different. Still, research shows that there are certain trends that show up in law enforcement agencies. Activities center on boosting a sense of camaraderie, creating bonding experiences, and providing much-needed relief from the everyday pressures and stress.

And that’s exactly where drinking comes in. A rough day on the streets? Let’s grab a beer after work. Time to meet the new recruits? What better place than the usual pub around the corner. 

To make matters worse, police officers tend to downplay the risks of drinking and see efforts to address mental health repercussions of trauma and alcohol misuse as a sign of weakness. 

A recent survey study of Canadian law enforcement officers focused on answering this key question: “What helps or hinders the decision to access psychological services in a police population?” The answers — statements provided by members of the force — are honest, revealing, and, at times, heartbreaking. 

Here are some of the statements by participants shedding light on the barriers they face when it comes to seeking help:

“The environment I was in at work was very much of a suck it up attitude”—‘suck it up buttercup attitude’—we are supposed to have thick skin.”

“It is a career stopper [seeing a psychologist]. I wouldn’t go and talk to someone. So even now I understand there is no stigma, but I am still asking okay, well, what goes back? I recognize it could be detrimental to your career.”

“Who is going to know? Are they going to find out? … Am I going to come in to work one day and my supervisor is going to say, “I got a phone call from Health Services saying that you’re no longer fit for duty.”

There were many others who echoed these statements, saying that in a setting where you can expect to be put on the spot for “being off with the flu,” taking care of mental health issues can be a career-killer. And that’s regrettable, since sometimes addressing mental health symptoms is exactly what’s needed to save a police officer’s career — and possibly their life, as well as the lives of others they’re in charge of protecting.

Special Challenges Facing Women: Fitting in With “the Boys”

Women who work in traditionally male-dominated industries might feel this problem with unique intensity. To prove yourself, showing up and doing your job isn’t enough. It takes more — sometimes a whole lot more. You often have to go above and beyond what’s required, and any mistake along the way can come back to haunt you.

Granted, things are changing. Still, one of the women surveyed in the previously mentioned study explains how the issue of mental health for women opens a new can of worms:

“Number one they allowed us [women] to come into the Force, number two dear God if you have a woman who’s weak and crying and seeing a psychologist it’s even worse. Why did you allow them to come into this Force? … I am not as physically strong and if I ever overtly said I was going to see a psychologist it would make it even worse … I have to be strong because I have to show — I may be a woman, but I can still cut the mustard!”

And it’s not just the stigma of asking for help that poses a special challenge for women — drinking itself does, too. According to a study, female police officers are just as likely as male officers to binge drink, compared to outside the police force, where women tend to have lower levels of alcohol use than men. This is partly due to the stressors mentioned earlier, but the study found that female police officers are also likely to drink in less stressful work environments, which may seem counterintuitive. The lower workplace stress is associated with them feeling more comfortable on the force and with their coworkers, and they become more accustomed to the “male officer norms,” including alcohol consumption. 

This is particularly dangerous for women in many ways. Women process alcohol differently due to differences in metabolism and a higher body fat percentage. According to the CDC, it takes less to get drunk, and the alcohol takes a heavier toll health-wise. As a result, it’s easier to get trapped in a double bind: drinking to fit in with “the boys” and coping with the daily trauma, but also being afraid to ask for help for fear of revealing “feminine” weakness.

Strategies to Promote a Help-Seeking Culture in Law Enforcement

Strategies for Prevention: For Everyone’s Safety

The International Association of Chiefs of Police talks about several strategies for improving the situation when it comes to problematic alcohol use, trauma, and other mental health issues that plague the police across the globe. After all, in the end, everyone’s safety is at stake. 

1. Police Culture: Calling for Change 

Studies show that support from fellow members of the police force makes asking for help that much easier. It takes time for cultural shifts to happen, but experience shows it can be done! 

As one of the survey participants puts it:

“I think it falls under when you go get your teeth cleaned or medical checkups — get your emotional checkup.” 

And encouragement from the rest of the force — peers and supervisors alike — opens the much-needed door.

Normalizing mental health care helps create an environment where seeking care is encouraged. Monaghan talks about this in his TEDx Talk, suggesting a requirement for everyone to see a therapist several times a year to take the stigma away. It’s also crucial to train supervisors on how to identify officers who may be struggling, and how to talk with them about their difficulties. In some cases, medications might be the key to recovery. (If you’re wondering, can police officers take antidepressants? They absolutely can. However, each individual case is different, and sometimes a doctor has to clear an officer for duty, confirming that the medication won’t affect their ability to perform their job.) 

As one participant puts it, “You have to talk about it. You have to talk to psychologists and feel okay about doing that. Because my whole service, that’s not what I was brought up with, so to speak.” But it can be.

Moreover, shifting away from drinking culture is crucial for the changes to stick. Changing the social structure of the agency to include activities that don’t focus on drinking can be a starting point. For example, sporting events, group workouts, or family get-togethers all provide an outlet to decompress together without booze. 

2. Inside the Force: Calling for Conversation 

In the old days (the really old days), it was all about talking. As Solomon and McGill write, “During early wars, combat occurred during the day, then at night warriors would return to the campfire to eat and discuss their actions with fellow warriors who would listen and empathize.” 

Critical incident debriefing among the police force can achieve a similar effect. Framed as organized discussions that “take the participants mentally back to the time of the traumatic event and allow them to talk their way through their physical and emotional responses,” they allow participants to share their stories, fill in the gaps, and unburden themselves of the trauma that might be suppressed.

3. Families: Calling for Support

Finally, we can’t forget the families of law enforcement: they’re also affected! As Solomon and McGill observe, these are partners, children, and parents who actively participate in the lives of police officers and are affected by the trauma they face. After all, “families ... do more than make sure they get enough sleep, a hot meal and fresh uniforms in the closet. The faces of the families are yet to be seen.”

Summing Up

In the end, as Solomon and McGill conclude, “Society needs heroes, but most policemen, firemen, and soldiers don’t want to become heroes; they want to be men and women doing their jobs. They want to be supported and understood.”

That understanding comes from within, but it can spread like wildfire once enough people are behind it. We all deserve an opportunity to live healthy lives and, as Monaghan says, the healthier our public servants are, the healthier we’ll all be in the long run. And if you’re struggling and need some extra support, Reframe is here to help! We have a vibrant community of others who’ve been exactly where you are and know what it feels like. Check out our 24/7 Forum to share stories, get support, and hear helpful advice.

Summary FAQs

1. Why are police officers at a higher risk of alcohol and substance abuse than the general population?

Research indicates that police officers face unique job-related stressors, including frequent exposure to violence, which significantly contributes to a higher rate of substance abuse. Statistics show that while 8.2% of the general population struggle with these issues, about 23% of law enforcement officers do, a rate nearly three times higher.

2. How does PTSD influence substance abuse and suicide rates among police officers?

PTSD, stemming from continuous exposure to traumatic events, significantly increases the risk of substance abuse among police officers. Studies have found that the combination of PTSD and substance abuse elevates the risk of suicide by a factor of 10 among law enforcement professionals.

3. Are there any gender differences in how police officers handle alcohol?

Studies suggest that both male and female police officers engage in binge drinking more frequently than professionals in other industries. However, women may face additional challenges due to biological differences that affect how they metabolize alcohol, making their health consequences more severe.

4. What are the barriers to seeking help for mental health issues in the police force?

Many officers report a cultural stigma within the force that equates seeking psychological help with weakness, potentially harming their careers. This "suck it up" attitude deters many from accessing the mental health support they critically need.

5. Can police officers take antidepressants?

Yes, police officers can take antidepressants. Mental health treatment, which includes the use of medications like antidepressants, is an important aspect of healthcare for anyone, including those in law enforcement.

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