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The Importance Of Mental Health And Addiction Strategies In The Police

Police watch over public safety as the great overseers and law enforcement units of our functioning society. On the way, they may be exposed to horrific violence, crisis situations, dire circumstances and encounters with hard drug use and criminal activity. Which begs the question, who is overseeing the overseers? While they are expected to be the backbone and undeterred force that props up the criminal justice system, police officers are human too. Due to the fact that they encounter such dramatic situations as a by-product of their job descriptions they are, in fact, more likely to develop mental health issues like PTSD and drug addictions than the rest of us.

Because of this harsh and unavoidable reality, many police units have begun implementing mental health and addiction protocols and programs aimed at better community relations, as well as stronger overall wellbeing for their officers and first responders.  As the broader discussion regarding mental health issues and drug use disorders has become central to the public discourse, police units have also begun to fall in line and address the issues that their officers are facing on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Though these shifts are occurring, and rightfully so, there still remains some debate as to just how necessary mental health and addiction strategies are for police divisions. The old-fashioned stereotypes of the unbreakable police officer that doesn’t require help from anyone still persist, and the stigma that exists for officers that seek help for themselves has not disappeared, despite the gradually shifting public perception. In order to determine just how important it is to implement strategies and programs aimed at countering addiction and developmental disabilities, we must first take a look at the numbers.

Mental health and addiction problems in the police force: A snapshot

Directly off the bat, one glaring statistic stands out when it comes to mental health and police officers: in 2018, more police officers in the United States died by suicide than in the line of duty. Furthermore, a staggering total of 167 officers died by suicide in 2018 alone, according to statistics compiled by Blue H.E.L.P., an organization dedicated to the reduction of mental health stigma through education[1]. In Canada, the Centre for Addiction Mental Health (CAMH) produced a similarly distressing report, as 36.7 percent of police officers reported symptoms of mental illness as compared to 10 percent of the general population in 2018[2]. In addition, 87 percent of officers in the report said that they suffered moderate to severe depression, while 88 percent said they experienced moderate to severe anxiety.

These numbers are startling to be sure, and they should be looked at as evidence of a strong connection between mental health and addiction, and policing as a profession. Given these mental health figures, it should come as no surprise that officers also suffer from higher addiction numbers than the average population, as the two are often intertwined.

Drug use and abuse are increasingly employed as a coping mechanism for officers as a result of the harsh realities they experience on the front lines. Substances can include alcohol, prescription painkillers, benzodiazepines, marijuana, or even hard drugs like heroin. These drugs are sometimes taken as a diversion from the police officer’s often harsh day-to-day experiences. 1 in 4 police officers have drug or alcohol abuse issues, while 20-30 percent of officers suffer through substance abuse disorders compared to about 10 percent of the general population[3].

Through examining the numbers, we have uncovered what is not a surprising reality: statistics indicate that mental health issues and substance abuse disorders are much higher among police officers than their civilian counterparts. This begs the obvious question of what is being done to address such a glaring and obvious disproportion in these figures when it comes to police departments? What percentage of police units employ mental health and addiction strategies and how many of them are stuck in the past and leaving their officers effectively hung out to dry when it comes to these issues? Furthermore, are the officers also being given the tools required to police and patrol addiction and mental health issues in their communities? Surely the provision of adequate programs can help officers not only look after themselves, but also the lives of those struggling with addiction and mental health disorders on the streets. Diving into some of the major police units across North America and their policies and programs can give us a clearer idea of the bigger picture.

Existing policies: A step in the right direction?  

The Toronto Police Service, which services the country’s most populous city, released a comprehensive “Mental Health and Addictions Strategy” in 2019, which applied primarily to community members. However, the policy makers also took note of the members of its own force and the need for effective ways to tackle mental health and addiction issues both internally and externally. The report, which provided a guide on policing in an age of waning mental health and increased drug addictions across the city, included sections on preserving life, demonstrating leadership, avoiding racist policing tactics, committing to a stigma-free environment, continuous learning, evaluation and, finally, a dedication to transparency and accountability[4]. However, while much of the report focuses on policing external forces, it only minimally highlights the need to resolve its own officers’ struggles with mental health and addiction issues.

Community-driven initiatives like this one are now essential, as the relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve have been greatly impacted in recent years by polarizing moments, like the violent clash between officers and civilians in Memphis as recently as this summer, following the death of Brandon Webber[5], or many of the other incidents between law enforcement agencies and everyday people in recent years.

One of the most controversial police units in history, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), released a visionary guide for itself called “LAPD 2020,” which outlined the department’s Mental Evaluation Unit. The Unit, according to the report, received 14,238 phone calls from officers seeking guidance on handling people in the midst of a mental health crisis. The Unit is comprised of a police officer, a psychologist, psychiatric nurse or other clinician. Once again, the guide was presented as an external how-to: it did not provide much transparency or guidance on what kinds of resources the department’s own officers were provided with when dealing with PTSD or other mental health disorders.

However, while it would be nice to have a firmer understanding of the extent to which major police units are looking after their own officers, it’s unquestionably a positive sign that an organization such as the LAPD is paying attention to mental health and drug addiction cases as something that needs addressing from a psychological standpoint, rather than purely through the use of force, incarceration and arrest as may have been the case in years gone by. And while the department’s public relations firm producing a guide is one thing, and what actually happens on the front lines is another, it’s excellent to see that major units in both the U.S. Department of Justice and Canada’s own police services are applying strategies to build community trust and police some of these issues while equipped with education and knowledge.

Police mental health and drug addiction strategies: The conclusion

The answer to the question of whether or not police actually need a strategy for mental health and drug addiction is an obvious one: of course! Whether it be in their own units or out on the streets, there is no denying the prevalence of addiction- and mental illness-related issues in 2019. Drug addiction in Canada has become so significant that it cost taxpayers $22.8 billion in 2013[6]. In the country’s last Drug Use and Alcohol Monitoring Survey in 2012, it was estimated that 21.6 percent of the country’s population met the criteria for substance abuse disorder at some point in the previous year. By the age of 40, over 50 percent of the Canadian population will have had a mental illness[7].

Given the pervasiveness of addiction and mental health issues in Canada as well as in the United States, there is absolutely no doubt that police forces in both countries should be equipped with policies and programs that help teach them best practices for handling such issues. Furthermore, through that training and strategy implementation, it stands to reason that officers who are afflicted by similar issues would learn and develop coping mechanisms for themselves. An increasing willingness to pay attention to issues such as these are important steps towards tackling these issues, as indicated by the TPS and the LAPD’s recent guides that include the respective forces’ mental health and addiction strategies. However, more transparency and space should be dedicated to the strategies that are aimed at prevention of these problems in police officers themselves.

Police forces should continue to forge strong connections with community agencies and community partners so that significant bonds between law enforcement and the communities they service are continually nourished. While law enforcement agencies’ approaches to policing mental health and substance abuse disorders are still some way from being where they need to be, progress should be noted where it’s due.



Photo credit: Michael. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.