Q&A: Alcohol Abuse Among Law Enforcement

An interview with a research scientist on the latest Research Update

Police officers are a unique subset of the population as a result of their work culture and regular exposure to stressors and trauma. These issues culminate in an increased risk for problem drinking, either as a result of social pressure, or as an unhealthy way to try to control anxiety or stress.

In this Q&A, Bethany Ranes, PhD, research scientist with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's Butler Center for Research, comments on the latest Research Update, "Alcohol Abuse Among Law Enforcement."

Q. What is the primary message you would like professionals to glean from the latest information?

A: Many people have predetermined stereotypes of how police officers behave, and these judgments can lead to dangerous oversights and misconceptions.

I think it's important for professionals to really try and familiarize themselves with the reality of law enforcement careers, and understand how the unique challenges and frustrations of this field may result in behavior or beliefs that may be at odds with what most of us assume a police officer would do or think.

Police officers are under a lot of pressure to uphold a certain image at all times, and by breaking down that pressure in a genuine and safe therapeutic environment, I think professionals can have a lot more success in treating addiction in this population.

Q. What data either surprised you or was the most significant regarding addiction in law enforcement officers?

A: I was frankly shocked at the lack of research in this area. Over the past 20 years, scientists have focused so much attention on the significant effects of trauma on substance abuse in a military population, but I was very surprised to see that this has not carried over into research on first responders.

I also thought it was fascinating that daily stressors (like unsupportive administrators or unclear organizational communication) seem to have a significant impact on police officers’ propensity for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and problem drinking behavior after experiencing a traumatic event.

Those findings really shed light on the importance of educating police officers on using healthy and effective coping strategies for everyday stress.

Q. Where can professionals learn more about this issue?

A: While there are not a large number of research articles on this topic, the number appears to be growing. Although it focuses on a culture separate from the United States, scientific literature out of Australia seems to be leading the way, and is a good place to learn about some of the risk factors and substance abuse outcomes that occur among law enforcement officers.

Additionally, there are many psychologists and mental health professionals in the field who have received specific training related to therapy and counseling geared toward a police population. These forensic clinicians can be an excellent source of information on the specific needs and unique struggles facing law enforcement.

Q. What trends might be foreseen within the findings?

A: Since the research is so limited, I think it may be too early to discuss trends; however, there are some fascinating early findings related to stress and its relation to substance abuse among police officers.

I hope to see more research specific to how stress may contribute to alcohol abuse among police, and in the future, as we are able to better understand these stress patterns, I hope we can identify some effective strategies for preventing problematic drinking behaviors among officers and help to treat those with alcohol dependence more effectively.

Read an excerpt or download the entire Alcohol Abuse Among Law Enforcement Research Update.

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