Would you know if you had a substance use problem? If a co-worker had a drinking problem, what would you say? Would you know how to ask for assistance or where to get it? Questions like these all too-often go unanswered as a result of either lack of support, resources, punitive administrative stances, or a reduced willingness to reach out and ask for assistance when it is truly needed.
Despite the increased focus on officer wellness and resilience in the past decade, little attention remains on the significant, ongoing problem of substance abuse within the law enforcement community. A 2010 study found that 11% of male and 16% of female officers reported alcohol use levels deemed to be “at risk” by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. A 2007 survey of nearly 1,000 police officers reported that 37% of the respondents reported one or more problem drinking behaviors. With law enforcement officers reporting problem drinking behaviors at rates higher than the national average (roughly 6 – 7%), it’s astounding that more outward effort is not being placed on supporting officers in freely accessing care.
But what is an addiction, exactly? Putting it simply, an addiction is a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance (or behavior) for which the effects provide sufficiently compelling incentive to repeat the behavior despite detrimental consequences (Prochniak, 2019). If your drinking has ever negatively interfered with your life and you continue to make the same decisions about your drinking, there’s a problem. If you’ve ever heard someone tell you that “you drink too much” or that someone has voiced concern about your use, then you’re urged to examine this behavior and address it before it becomes unmanageable.
It’s probably fair to say that many officers have had a day or two where they have shown up to work hungover from a previous night of drinking. Perhaps it was from a retirement celebration or blowing off steam after a particularly difficult shift. This is not exactly what I’m talking about.
But—these situations can develop into more problematic patterns. If that’s the case, you are encouraged to take a look at these behaviors. They can signify a problem that requires assistance from a culturally competent professional. Sometimes, one’s substance use is significant enough that co-workers, peer supporters, or trusted supervisors must be made aware of the problem in order to appropriately assist.
The idea of asking for assistance for a substance abuse problem can sometimes be so intimidating that it keeps officers from stepping forward to obtain the help they need. Fear of negative impact to one’s career or being viewed as not-promotable, untrustworthy, or weak can add to feelings of isolation, helplessness and hopelessness. Under the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act, asking for help with a drinking or substance abuse problem before one’s career is affected, most oftentimes protects both the officer and his/ her career from punitive action. Too often officers have destroyed their careers, and sometimes their families and lives, as a result of not reaching out sooner.
Substance abuse and addictions can be effectively treated if proper assistance is obtained in a timely and effective manner. For more information on substance abuse, self-assessments, seeking assistance and other related topics, I have a new book, Addiction and Recovery for First Responders, available on Amazon.