Alcohol and Drug Use Among Police Officers: Strategies for Prevention

Substance use disorder can happen to anyone. However, a career in law enforcement comes with a lot of unique stressors, any of which can increase the risk of substance dependency. 

Alcohol and drug use among police officers is not uncommon. An estimated one in four officers struggle with a substance use disorder. Further research shows that substance use disorders affect both male and female officers of all ages and ranks.

Here’s what to know about the connection between law enforcement and addiction, including prevention strategies that may help address the problem and ensure that more officers get the support they need. 

Just How Common Is Drug Use and Alcoholism Among Police Officers?

Working such a high-stress job comes with a lot of risks. And among them is an increased risk of substance dependency, with police officers experiencing substance use disorder at rates that are anywhere from 10-20% higher than the general population. 

The exact percentage of police officers that are alcoholics is hard to pin down, but one study of urban officers found that 18.1% of male officers and 15.9% of female officers met the criteria for troubling alcohol use, and 7.8% met the criteria for “lifetime alcohol abuse or dependence.” The use of illegal drugs is also quite prevalent, though precise statistics are lacking. 

There are a multitude of reasons why individuals in law enforcement are particularly susceptible to substance use disorder and other mental health conditions. These include:

  • Higher rates of burnout, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population
  • Exposure to firsthand and secondary trauma and violence
  • Fears for personal safety
  • Accessibility to illegal drugs
  • Lack of morale
  • Lack of support from the community and/or media
  • Stigma within law enforcement of mental health disorders and treatment

The impact of these and other mental struggles is experienced throughout the police community. And unfortunately, many officers turn to substances to cope with and/or numb the negative feelings from the struggles they face, including officers who have never dealt with substance dependency in the past. 

Prevention Strategies for Substance Use in Law Enforcement

Substance use among law enforcement is a systemic issue with several root causes. That being said, there are quite a few known strategies for addressing the widespread trauma, stress, and stigma that police officers face. These strategies are key to effectively addressing the high rates of police officer substance use, and they may make all the difference when it comes to ensuring that officers have access to constructive and confidential care. 

Strategy #1: Understand the Unique Risk Factors Police Officers Face

It’s not enough to just acknowledge police officer substance use statistics. Instead, those in the police and mental health communities must dig further into the mental health challenges of the job and the ways that those challenges form a direct path to substance use disorder. 

Some of the factors that should remain top of mind in these discussions include the stressful nature of police work, the increased accessibility to substances, and the social influence police officers may face. 

Strategy #2: Develop a Supportive Organizational Culture

The stigma of seeking mental health care compounds the issue of law enforcement substance use and puts a significant barrier in the way of officers getting help. And while eliminating that stigma entirely is a tall order, certain organizational changes, such as the implementation of employee assistance programs, could work to lessen the stigma and increase access to care. 

Strategy #3: Provide Better Mental Health Education and Training to Officers

Police officers may be well-versed in recognizing substance use disorder in others, but less so in identifying it among their own ranks. Better education and training is one strategy to combat this discrepancy, since officers who are provided with more education on substance use disorder may develop more skills for addressing it on a personal level. The same goes for supervisors and managers, both of whom could benefit from increased training on how to identify warning signs of substance dependency. 

Strategy #4: Teach Alternative Coping Skills

Police officers who turn to substances often do so as a way to cope with their mental health struggles. But what if easier, healthier ways to cope were made more available? A departmental focus on healthy coping skills like exercise and mindfulness could make a serious impact, as could increased access to professional and peer support groups.

Help Is Available for Police Officers Suffering from Substance Use Disorder

The distinct factors behind police officer substance use rates highlight the need for treatment programs that are targeted to the needs and challenges of this community. 

Our Healing Our Heroes program is designed for just that, providing individuals in law enforcement with a safe, effective, and confidential approach to care that takes into account the unique challenges police officers face and how this increases their risk of substance use disorder and other mental health disorders, such as depression and PTSD. 

Addressing substance use disorder in law enforcement makes everyone safer, from officers themselves to those in the communities they protect. Please contact us to learn more about Healing Our Heroes and our police officer mental health services.