It is a somber fact that more law enforcement officers die by suicide than in the line of duty. In this way, LEOs have become their own worst enemies. While many cite post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma as the underlying causes for LEO suicides, we know that when officers use alcohol to mitigate trauma symptoms, they are 10 times more likely to experience suicidal ideation. In addition, over 70% of officers who kill themselves have alcohol in their system, and about 25% of officers who die by suicide have a diagnosable substance abuse problem. If these statistics themselves are not eye-opening, below I discuss some reasons why you should urge your department to develop robust resources and non-punitive ways for an officer struggling with drinking to seek help.
Many officers learn that drinking is the accepted way to cope with stress. There are lots of messages that reinforce drinking alcohol as a primary coping mechanism. “Choir practice” is still a common and understandable way many officers may try to deal with what they experience on the job. Approved and encouraged by peer culture, what first starts as social drinking may quickly escalate to drinking “just to take the edge off” when you come home. Since alcohol is a depressant that puts us to sleep, many officers start relying on drinking for its sedative effects. Over time, this only deteriorates the ability to sleep. It is also, of course, much easier to pick up a bottle than to take the time to go to the gym or utilize other coping mechanisms. A perfect storm is created when combined with the fact that seeking mental health help to deal with stress and trauma is still stigmatized for many officers.
There are two theories about how alcohol affects decision-making. The first you are probably familiar with is called disinhibition. The theory goes that because alcohol affects the prefrontal cortex (the center for logical thought and decision-making), it weakens inhibition. The person under the influence may make rash decisions that they would not usually make. The second theory is called the alcohol myopia theory. Myopia is basically a form of tunnel vision. This theory proposes that alcohol may increase a person’s focus on immediate events and decrease awareness of events that are distant. Why are both theories important? Think about adding these cognitive effects to someone who may already be depressed or has contemplated suicide. Many individuals who are suicidal may experience a sense of narrowing options; more and more they become convinced that suicide is the only option to end the pain. They may be unable to see how things may change in the future. While drinking, this perception may become even stronger, and an impulsive decision may become deadly.
I encourage those in leadership positions to closely look at the culture your department has around drinking. Many departments have found that as they implement substance abuse programming, the overall health and wellness of their department increases and suicide rates decrease. These efforts include (1) implementing early detection and wellness programming, such as peer support and psychological wellness visits; (2) utilizing competent, easily accessible and confidential EAP providers that provide officers with the resources to seek help; and (3) creating non-punitive formal alternatives for officers to ask for help from their department if they believe they are developing a drinking problem.
Lastly, I encourage officers to evaluate their own drinking. Many officers feel that as long as they are not drunk or hungover on the job, then they don’t have a drinking problem. Combined with trauma, depression and anxiety, an alcohol dependency may lead to suicidal ideation and a higher risk of carrying out and completing a suicide attempt.