While America’s law enforcement agencies grapple with how best to fight the opioid epidemic, it may be alarming to know that more officers die by suicide each year than from shootings and traffic accidents combined. Still, too many police departments are reluctant to acknowledge such an extreme problem exists, let alone implement solutions to address it.
In 2017, 140 officers died by suicide, according to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation. Similarly, in 2016 the American Psychological Association found that officers’ exposure to stress was correlated with excessive drinking and post traumatic stress, an injury of the brain.
Typically, the rise of suicide among officers is a result of severe stress followed by addiction — a problem that has grown much worse in recent years with access to opiates. Stress is a physical response when your body is confronted with excessive demands. In fact, it’s the way the body tries to restore biological and chemical stability.
But stress isn’t just a “feeling.” It involves the release of hormones — in particular, adrenaline and cortisol, which affect your heart, lungs, muscles and brain. Given their daily interactions, many in our law enforcement community may be working at a higher baseline level of stress. When they start using alcohol — or opioids — the effect is often more intense than for someone at a lower baseline. In other words, the “pleasure effect” is heightened.
These findings are not terribly surprising when one considers the situations our law enforcement officers frequently find themselves — domestic disturbances, gang and drug fights, and gun violence. Despite the grim circumstances that sheriffs, police and FBI agents face, law enforcement agencies rarely address these challenges. They don’t necessarily encourage officers to “share their feelings” or seek professional help, which can results in self-medication through alcohol or, more recently, opioids.
Just this month I addressed the FBI’s National Academy Trauma Symposium, where I talked to law enforcement officers about the effect the opioid crisis is having on their communities and what more we can do to help. Focusing on such a crucial part of our population helps shine a spotlight on the problem at large. The fact is, across the general population an estimated 27 million people use illicit drugs or misuse prescription medications — yet only 10 percent of these individuals receive treatment. But it doesn’t have to be like this for law enforcement or for typical Americans. It’s time to consider how we can better treat patients who are suffering from opioid abuse.
As we continue research in the medical and scientific community, we ought to keep in mind that there are proven interventions that we already know are effective. While there is no panacea to battling the opioid epidemic, there is more we can do to help officers and their families through “integrative therapy,” which is a clinical way of saying we need to use a variety of tools to tackle the problem.
Approaching a patient in this way may include medication-assisted treatment to address the physical symptoms, in conjunction with psychotherapeutic interventions like psychiatric evaluations, peer support groups, and family therapy to help address the underlying problems driving them to abuse drugs.
The key to integrative medicine is that it encourages doctors and treatment facilities to think about patients in a holistic fashion, and involves the patient as if he or she were a part of the clinical team. It involves a deeper consideration of physical, emotional, spiritual, societal, financial and professional health. It recognizes that treating addiction — like any other disease — requires personalization. There simply is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
From an early age we’re taught that law enforcement officers are critical pillars of society, focused on helping others and protecting our communities. So why shouldn’t they be treated with the same care and attention that they give us?
The resilience of our law enforcement community is centered on the health of its officers and leadership. We must make use of all appropriate therapeutic approaches and disciplines to optimize health and healing when they experience trauma and develop an injury such as post traumatic stress.