Alcoholism in police officers can occur as a result of job-related stressors, and it may, unfortunately, be part of law enforcement culture.
Undoubtedly, police officers have difficult and stressful jobs. They’re often faced with violence, conflict and potentially dangerous situations, which can take its toll on their mental and physical health. In fact, data shows that police work ranks among the five most stressful occupations in the United States.
Some police officers may use alcohol as a way to cope with the daily stress of their job or as a way to self-medicate for depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Others might have alcohol conditions stemming from genetics or the environment they grew up in. If someone comes to a law enforcement career with a predisposition for alcoholism, they can be triggered by the stressful and often grim situations they face on the job.
How Common Is Alcoholism Among Police Officers?
It’s tough to know exact numbers, but one study in The American Journal on Addictions surveyed over 700 urban police officers and found that 7.8% had abused alcohol or been dependent on it at some point in their lives. Furthermore, 18.1% of male officers and 15.9% of female officers indicated they had suffered negative consequences because of alcohol abuse.
The numbers above may seem relatively high, but a more recent report analyzed the results of 60 different studiesinvolving nearly 300,000 law enforcement officers across the globe; results showed that just over a quarter of them engaged in hazardous levels of drinking.
Researchers have found that alcohol abuse tends to increase after officers enter police training. For instance, a study of almost 200 officers assessed their drinking behaviors at the start of police training, six months into training, and after a year of training. They found that the risk of hazardous drinking increased as officers spent more time with the police force. Study authors concluded that there may be a culture among police officers that promotes the consumption of alcohol.
While hazardous drinking is problematic among officers, this is not the only problem in this field. Research showsthat job stress in the law enforcement field is linked to depression, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Causes of Alcoholism in Police Officers
There are several reasons that alcoholism in police officers is so problematic:
There is rarely a time when law enforcement officers aren’t under intense stress. The job is inherently dangerous, and officers walk into uncertain situations every day. They frequently must confront people who are armed and dangerous, violent, angry or mentally disturbed. The job has likely become even more stressful during recent years as officers have faced scrutiny and large-scale public backlash. Negative publicity related to reports of police brutality often reduces officers’ motivation to perform their jobs.
Frequent ups and downs can wreak havoc on a person’s emotional state. Officers may have long periods where nothing is happening and short periods when they’re in an extremely tense or dangerous environment. This can have a significant impact on mental health.
Law enforcement officers work shift-based schedules, so they may have several long shifts in a row with several days off. These schedules can cause fatigue, which could lead to anxiety and depression. It can be difficult to get into a healthy routine with the odd hours that police officers maintain. Unwinding with alcohol on days off or after a long shift can become a way to cope.
PTSD is frequently named a problem among veterans, but police officers are also exposed to stressful and frightening events, increasing their risk of developing this condition. A large body of research suggests that about one out of every seven officers struggles with PTSD. More recently, a survey in 2020 found that nearly half of a sample of 1,355 officers showed signs of PTSD. Furthermore, the majority of officers who completed the survey reported feeling trapped or helpless in their jobs.
Like many first responders, officers often manage significant demands from their superiors with stretched resources. There tends to be the notion that law enforcement officers need to suppress their emotions to do their jobs, which may contribute to the high rates of alcoholism among police officers.
If you or a loved one is a police officer struggling with alcohol abuse, The Recovery Village is here to help. We have locations across the country, and we are qualified to treat both alcohol addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions, like PTSD, which officers may experience due to job-related stress.
We also offer Fortitude, a dedicated treatment program for first responders that addresses their unique struggles in Columbus, Ohio. Contact us today to learn about our programs.
Ballenger, James F., et al. “Patterns and Predictors of Alcohol Use in Male and Female Urban Police Officers.” American Journal on Addictions, 2011. Accessed July 30, 2021.
Lilly, Michelle, and Curry, Shawn. “Survey: What is the state of officer mental health in 2020?” Police1 by Lexipol, September 14, 2020. Accessed July 30, 2021.
Obst, Patricia L., et al. “Does Joining the Police Service Drive You to Drink? A longitudinal study of the drinking habits of police recruits.” Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 2001. Accessed July 30, 2021.
Statista. “Most stressful jobs in the United States in 2019.” January 20, 2021. Accessed July 30, 2021.
Syed, Shabeer, et al. “Global prevalence and risk factors for mental health problems in police personnel: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 2020. Accessed July 30, 2021.
Wolfe, Scott. “Negative Publicity Reduces Police Motivation.” American Psychological Association, October 27, 2015. Accessed July 30, 2021.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.