Elizabeth “Liz” Barton is a national administrator for first responder services for American Addiction Centers. For Barton, the topic of mental health advocacy for law enforcement is a personal one. In 2012, her grandfather, a police officer, died by suicide. As the daughter of a police officer and the wife of a firefighter, she has seen firsthand how many first responders silently battle anxiety, depression, PTSD, alcoholism, and substance use disorder.
Today, Barton helps law enforcement officers find healing as part of American Addiction Centers’ First Responder Lifeline program. She travels the country advocating for first responders and working with law enforcement agencies to highlight these issues. Her message—and the message of American Addiction Centers—is, “It’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to suffer in silence.”
Statistics on Law Enforcement and Mental Health
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, law enforcement officers report much higher rates of mental health conditions such as depression and PTSD than the general population.
Nearly 1 in 4 police officers has thoughts of suicide at some point in their life. In the smallest police departments, the suicide rate increases to four times the national average. In fact, more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.
These startling statistics make sense when you consider the level of trauma that first responders experience every day. They routinely witness the most tragic events that occur in our communities. On-the-job stress significantly impacts mental well-being, and the effects accumulate over time.
Additionally, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people with mental health conditions are about twice as likely as the rest of the population to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. In turn, substance abuse greatly increases the risk of suicide. Individuals diagnosed with alcohol dependence, for example, have a suicide risk that is 10 times greater than that of the general population.
Why many officers don’t come forward
Despite these facts, many first responders are afraid to get help. Barton explains that they fear being looked down on or losing their weapons and jobs.
The societal stigma associated with mental illness falsely suggests that those who struggle with mental health are in some way defective. Often, this stigma is even more deeply ingrained in the nation’s police departments, where mental health struggles can be seen as an inability to perform one’s duties in the profession. Officers don’t want to be viewed as weak or incapable.
Many departments have been slow to broaden access to mental health resources and to avoid seemingly punitive policies, like assigning officers to desk duty or taking their gun and badge if they ask for help.
Barton states that we must reach the point where officers do not fear repercussions for reaching out for help. For instance, she would like to see health and wellness committees in every police department. Police departments should also offer continuing education on mental health for officers.
After critical incidents, involved officers should have the opportunity to talk with a mental health professional or peer support specialist.
Warning signs of mental health concerns
It’s also important to raise awareness about the early warning signs of a mental health concern. Many first responders believe that their symptoms will get better with time. The opposite is true: They typically only get worse.
The sooner an individual seeks help after a traumatic event, the better the outcome. When officers wait too long, says Barton, the result is an increased risk for substance use and addiction.
Early warning signs include (but are not limited to):
- Increase in reckless behaviors
- Loss of appetite
- Sudden relationship issues
- Lack of self-care
- Nightmares and lack of sleep
- Anger, rage, or changes in personality
- Loss of interest in activities
- Increased substance use or alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism
If you notice these signs, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD are common and treatable. There are many resources available to help you.
Barton suggests reaching out to a chaplain or peer support team, connecting with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or calling a confidential helpline. American Addiction Centers operates a 24/7 confidential law enforcement helpline at 855-997-6542.
First Responder Lifeline at American Addiction Centers
American Addiction Centers has developed an alcohol and substance use treatment program specifically designed to address the stressors faced by those who work in law enforcement. It aims to provide the best possible treatment available to our heroes who run toward danger rather than away from it.
The program was developed using input from clinicians who have worked with hundreds of officers, as well as veteran officers themselves. In fact, it’s led by veteran law enforcement professional James Morrison, CADC, BRI-II. Morrison is a retired Chicago Police Officer who has spent nine years working in the Employee Assistance Program. He has worked to establish protocol for treating law enforcement officers with treatment centers across the country.
Part of being #BraveEveryday is asking for help. The Nat'l Institute of #MentalHealth says exposure to significant trauma like experiences that could happen on any given shift for a first responder can trigger #PTSD. For help, call @AAC_Tweet 888-663-0559: https://t.co/cFIVH12pFz pic.twitter.com/NKPa7tMuik
— Leary Firefighters (@LearyFF) September 18, 2019
AAC’s First Responder Lifeline program blends research-based treatment modalities, dual diagnosis treatment, aftercare and a family support program, reintegration assistance, spirituality meetings, nutritional and PTSD assessments, and more.
The success rate of treatment through American Addiction Centers is double the national average, likely because AAC believes deeply in treating the whole person. They consider the relationship of mental health disorders, lifestyle, environment, and overall health to your addiction. In addition, they use a positive and hopeful approach that emphasizes your individual strengths and your desire to make meaningful changes in your life. Call 888-402-0894 to get started today.
It’s crucial to shed light on the higher than average rates of mental illness and suicide among law enforcement officers. It’s also crucial to encourage those who are struggling with mental health and substance use disorders to reach out.
Departments should transition from stigmatizing, punitive measures to supportive measures, ensuring that mental health resources are widely available. Anxiety, depression, and PTSD should be considered occupational diseases. In many states, they are. At least eight states, including Florida and Texas, have enacted bills allowing law enforcement officers to file worker’s compensation claims for PTSD. Such policies and programs should be expanded.
In the meantime, it’s important to know that needing help is not a sign of weakness. Nor is asking for it. You can get better. And if you ask for help, you will get better. As Barton says, “What my family endured was heartbreaking. If I can help even one police officer from going down that path, then I will continue to speak out and raise the alarm. Do not suffer in silence anymore.”