Law Enforcement Professionals Need Help Too: Dealing with the shielding of addiction in law enforcement, a recovering former officer’s perspective.
Substance use and abuse has no borders. Anyone can fall victim to drug and alcohol dependence, including the ones we hold as our protectors; namely law enforcement. Police officers and first responders are trained to enforce the laws while shielding their emotions. They are trained to hold themselves to a higher standard and avoid any on or off-duty situation that would place them in, “conduct unbecoming an officer”. Having a drug or alcohol dependence on top of being in a position to protect and serve puts great stress and anxiety on the officer. It may be as if there is no way out, but to stop on their own, or struggle in the torments of addiction alone. Police officers see day in and out the devastating affects drugs and alcohol have on the community. We should look inward more and not build a wall between “us” and “them”. Whatever we do for a living, or what socioeconomic group we see ourselves in, makes no difference when it comes to addiction.
A large number of people who commit theft and other crimes to support their addictions are viewed as less than or of having a moral failure because they choose to use drugs and alcohol and become addicted. Many people don’t understand why those afflicted can’t just stop their behavior or cut back on their use. Command staff want their officers to “get fixed” and come back to work ready to go fight crime. For the ones dependent on drugs or alcohol the reality is that they have lost their choice to discontinue use. Yes, it was their choice to first pick up that drink or drug, but after continued use their body’s physiologically need the substance just to survive day to day. Our brain functions are diverted or reprogramed, thus blocking cognitive thought and the choice not to use. With the proper guidance and a willingness to change, there is hope for the addicted person to recover.
I know first-hand of the devastating results of addiction. I was a police officer for 19 years and lost my career and much more because of my addiction. I thought there was no hope for me because I couldn’t stop on my own and feared reaching out for help. I was in shame and didn’t trust that if I asked for help it would remain confidential. I felt hopeless and alone, but thought I had to handle my issues by myself, I was so wrong. There is confidential help to those who seek it. A discussion with a therapist or private physician can bring about several options that an officer may be unaware of, and these professionals are bound by strict confidentiality laws. Unless there is a mandated reporting situation discussed, such as child abuse or imminent suicidality, there is no report made. It simply goes into the physicians notes and stays there. Even employer based insurance companies who are paying for treatment of any kind are bound by similar laws and cannot report any alcohol or drug use back to an employer, such as the police department or the FBI.
Addiction does not always look the same. It does not follow a pattern or show itself easily to many. Having a problem with alcohol or drugs, gambling, sex, or anything doesn’t always mean you steal and commit crimes. However, it can lead to this level if not accepted and treated, even for those sworn to uphold the law. The hope is to treat the problems before it takes you to the darkest reality you can imagine, and everything is gone. Confidentiality and protecting your image and respect is important, but you have to take a leap of faith before anything can change in the positive. It really doesn’t matter anyway in the end who knows, if you lose everything because of your addiction. I personally found this fact out myself.
Police officers are less likely to seek help because they may not know how to go about seeking help within the organization. If the department has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), concerns about confidentiality may be an issue. Who can I trust? Can I trust fellow officers in peer support? For me, the answer was “No”. I couldn’t trust myself, how could I trust anyone? Cops are the biggest talkers and story tellers. The gossip and rumors among officers are more prevalent than middle school. The fear of having your superiors and fellow officers find out that you have a problem is daunting.
Police officers fear the stigma of being labeled as having a drug or alcohol problem. Many will not seek help and keep it to themselves until it is so noticeable that they get called in and questioned about their lack of work performance or general appearance. Some may continue living in turmoil and end up making a series of poor decisions leading to termination or incarceration.
Police officers are the ones who help others and sacrifice their safety to protect the safety of others. It is no wonder why many officers don’t seek help. They are the ones that are sworn to help, not be helped. Asking for help and admitting that they are stuck in addiction can be perceived as a sign of weakness. Police officers must handle the situation, maintain professionalism, hold back emotions and go home safely. The stigma of having a substance abuse issue keeps many quiet. The fear of not getting the promotion or the loss of respect from fellow officers and command staff keeps officers stuck in the grasp of addiction.
What a heavy load to bare, realizing that you are out of control because of drugs and alcohol. Not having the choice to stop any longer, and unable to stop on your own. Hearing others describe people being inflicted with drugs or alcohol as less than human because of their actions. The crimes and violence that are a direct result of their addictions are surreal to hear, if you are the one they are really talking about. What does it take to raise your hand and stand up? Unless we all come together and realize that drug and alcohol abuse can hit anyone in any profession, many will suffer. There is a solution if we are willing to stand up and protect the ones who protect us.
Police officers are considered to be at an exceptionally high risk for several mental health and substance use disorders. Among them are alcohol dependency, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. If you or one of your fellow officers needs help, get it. Being the man or woman on the job who makes a bad call at the wrong time can have fatal consequences for peace officers. We care for our physical health so we are ready on the spot for the job, we also have to take care of our emotional and mental health equally. The officer I want next to me is the one who is alert, grounded, and with the best judgment they can have. If you need help, get help.
Author: Michael C. Koch, BS, CADC II, SAP, is a former narcotics detective who now works as an addiction counselor at True North Recovery Services, an intensive outpatient program in Encinitas, CA. Michael is dedicated to helping all of those who suffer but he has a special place in his heart for the recovering peace officer.
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