Police officers have been identified as an at-risk population for developing substance abuse and mental health disorders. Limited research and low numbers of self-reported disorders make quality data on the prevalence hard to find. Still, anecdotal evidence and clinician experience suggest the numbers to be significant.
Though data is limited, it is not hard to imagine why police officers would experience higher than average rates of substance abuse and mental health disorders. The nature of their work is exceptionally high-stress and involves exposure to death, threats of personal injury, criminal activity, and domestic disputes involving children. Police officers must stay calm, take positions of responsibility and authority, and instill safety in situations that most consider traumatic. This link between police officers and addiction stems from this internalized and consistent stress.
At Relevance Recovery, we specialize in providing treatment for first responders. Our individualized programs in New Jersey will help you or your loved one fight the disease that is impacting your life. You can even verify your insurance benefits before completing the entire admissions process. Contact us today to get started.
The Relationship Between Police Officers, Addiction, Stress, and Trauma
Trauma can occur in any form of a “critical incident,” which is an experience when an individual has such a strong emotional response that they cannot cope at the scene or later (Civilotti et al. 2021). For police officers, critical incidents occur in the field when responding to emergencies like those described above, by proxy in cases where an empathetic response to a civilian’s suffering affects their ability to cope, and at home when family members of police officers are engaged in the effects of trauma on their home life. Police officers will perceive some experiences as critical incidents that surpass their coping threshold while others do not. That variability makes trauma related to critical incidents so difficult to recognize and treat.3
But stress and trauma come from more than their exposure to critical incidents. Police culture and organizational demand add additional pressure. Police culture refers to the commonality among police cohorts of complicated promotion structures, involuntary work commitments, limited funding, scarce resources, and bullying in the workplace.2
We cannot allow society to make individuals responsible for their struggles when entire systems are accountable for the gap in mental health among first responders—recognizing that social structures contribute to incidences of substance abuse and mental health crises is the first step in reducing stigma and improving outcomes.
How Stress and Trauma Lead to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Disorders
Police officers internalize trauma differently depending on personal background, level of support, and childhood experiences. A domestic dispute may be particularly triggering for an officer who experienced childhood abuse, whereas a deadly car crash involving a child may be triggering for a father of four.
By understanding that police officers experience stress and trauma to varying degrees, we can assume there is an equal variance among their coping strategies. One study suggests that the best outcomes for police officers can be found in rehab and treatment programs that address the individual officer’s attachment style.
According to Civilotti et. al (2021),
“…attachment is considered an interpersonal motivational system that leads people to seek closeness and protection in situations of vulnerability.”
A person’s relational attachment to others can be subcategorized as him being securely attached or insecurely attached and then further into subcategories like anxious attachment. Each type of attachment comes with its own set of challenges. Insecurely attached individuals are at greater risk for substance abuse and mental health disorders as they lack the necessary coping strategies in the face of trauma.
When existing coping strategies fail, either once or often, our bodies explore new ways to normalize feelings and achieve homeostasis. Exposure to drugs and alcohol can activate pleasure centers in the brain, making it feel like coping is effective. The use of those substances, however, leaves some individuals prone to addiction and mental health disorders. Some people are more prone to experiencing addiction and mental health disorders. Much scientific research is being done to explain better why some individuals experience addiction and mental health disorders more quickly or with greater intensity. While we do not know the specific neural pathways that lead to the disease after exposure to stressors, we know that the disorders can affect any person of any race, gender, or age.
How Can Relevance Recovery Help?
As an observer, you can help by reducing the stigma associated with people suffering from substance abuse and mental health disorders. Acknowledging the problem and seeking help is essential in recovery, but many avoid it because of anticipated judgments.
Some ways to reduce stigma include openly discussing your trauma and therapy experiences, discussing with someone you believe might be suffering, and speaking up if you hear someone make insensitive comments.
Mental health screenings occur in many first responder work environments, but self-reported numbers are low. 1 If you are working as a first responder, dare to answer screening questions truthfully without fear of retribution. Revealing the prevalence of people who struggle with mental health disorders and substance abuse will dispel stigmas and drive more research and funding into treatment options.
Relevance Recovery’s Addiction Treatment Program for Police Officers
Relevance Recovery offers a solution for you or your loved one. We are a full-service center in Freehold, NJ, providing treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders. Our facilities and clinicians offer inpatient therapy, outpatient therapy, group therapy, adolescent/teen therapy, detox programs, intervention assistance, and aftercare, all with a holistic and practical approach.
If you are suffering from a mental health disorder or substance abuse and are a police officer or first responder, know that we have a program tailored to your specific needs, like the Relevance Recovery’s First Responders program or the PTSD/Trauma program.
No matter where you are in your journey, we have a program to meet your needs, including inpatient, outpatient, and aftercare programs.
- Marshall, R. E., Milligan-Saville, J., Petrie, K., Bryant, R. A., Mitchell, P. B., & Harvey, S. B. (2021). Mental health screening amongst police officers: factors associated with under-reporting of symptoms. BMC psychiatry, 21(1), 135. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-021-03125-1
- Milliard B. (2020). Utilization and Impact of Peer-Support Programs on Police Officers’ Mental Health. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1686. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01686
- Civilotti, C., Di Fini, G., & Maran, D. A. (2021). Trauma and Coping Strategies in Police Officers: A Quantitative-Qualitative Pilot Study. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(3), 982. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18030982