Addiction Doesn’t Discriminate
The words ‘law enforcement officer’ and ‘addict’ seem opposed. Part of the tasks officers face is to stop the distribution and use of drugs. Many of the people they come to know daily are in the middle of one addiction or another. Just like the myth that addiction only strikes the down-and-out, it is a misconception that law enforcement officials are immune to becoming addicts. Moreover, while it is true that some choose to engage in illegal behavior, the majority come because of a work-related injury. With the physical nature of the job and risks of injury, it is a given that most officers will incur an injury at some point in their career.
Per the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, law enforcement boasts some of the highest levels of work injuries¹. Foot pursuits, jumping fences, wrestling perpetrators into submission, assaults, stabbings, gunshot wounds, and vehicle crashes are just some of the ways officers can be injured on duty. Some injuries may lead to future issues and flare up, causing problems later. It is natural that an officer seeks treatment following an injury. That treatment may include physical therapy, surgery, and pain medication.
Dangers of RX Pain Medications
One of the most commonly prescribed medications for treatment of pain, and one of the most highly abused medications, can be found in the family of opioids. Oxycodone, along with hydrocodone, has been at the forefront of a nationwide epidemic. Part of the reason for the widespread effect is that it is considered ‘safe’ by many. It is prescribed legally by a physician, and therefore in mainstream perception exempt from the stigma of a ‘street’ drug. Many people who go through life thinking they could never become an addict suddenly find themselves in the biggest battle of their life. Let me be clear, no one wakes up one day and says, “I want to be an addict.” Addiction can happen to anyone, regardless of position in life.
Drug dependence is not always a negative thing. The treatment of many disease processes results in drug dependence. Heart disease, diabetes, and a myriad of other conditions require lifelong use of medication for normal body function to occur. However, the danger of dependence on pain medication has far-reaching effects. You can be addicted to a medication yet not be dependent, meaning your body does not need it to function properly. However, ongoing use of a pain medication, and in some cases even short-term use, causes your body to develop a tolerance. This tolerance leads to your body requiring a higher or more potent dose of the drug to achieve the desired effects.
So an officer gets injured and goes in for medical treatment. He complies with the physician’s treatment plan. In that plan is a prescription for a pain medication. The officer follows the instructions and takes the medication as prescribed. At the end of the course, he is evaluated by the physician and still has a complaint of pain from the injury. So the doctor prescribes another round of pain medication. This can quickly turn into a cycle. Especially if it is an injury that requires long-term treatment. The perceived face of addiction has for years been some underweight, dirty individual in a dark alley. However, addiction is one of the few things in life that truly knows no discrimination.
What to Look For
Every officer should recognize the signs of addiction. However, it is much easier to identify in someone else. What can you look for? If you notice your partner starting to act differently, experience unusual mood swings, or exhibit behavioral changes, you need to find out the cause. Distracted behavior, frequent mistakes, forgetful thinking, and outburst of anger can all be indicators of addiction. Accountability and honest communication can make a difference. Ignoring signs and symptoms do not.
There are steps you can take that can help in staying in the safe realm of medication use. Again, no one is exempt from addiction and using any pain medication needs to be approached with a great deal of respect and caution. Pain medication is necessary in many cases and helps people recover from injuries. However, it needs to be viewed as something as sinister as a criminal with a loaded gun. Both can alter, if not take, your life. One of the first steps is to take personal accountability.
Most physicians are responsible and looking out for the good of the patient. They are the experts in treating your medical or traumatic condition. However, if you are prescribed a pain medication, ask if there is anything less potent that can be substituted. If you can tolerate the pain and continue to heal without causing further damage, you can try to use other methods of pain relief. Meditation, acupuncture, and other options exist. In some cases, it will be necessary to use the medication. In this case, use it exactly as prescribed. Moreover, a simple precaution is not to take it if you do not need it.
Help is Available
At any point, if you find yourself starting to depend on a pain medication, seek help. Don’t think you can just shake it off or get rid of the problem yourself. If you are waking up and it is your first thought of the day or laying down, and it is the last thought before sleep, it is time to ask for help. Drug addiction has done more to ruin lives across the country than anything else combined. Lost jobs, broken families, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, theft, and a multitude of other travesties are just some of the results of drug addiction. It is easy to become jaded and think it could never be you or your partner, but no one is immune.
Sprout Health Group and Frontline Responder Services understand the unique challenges in treating officers with substance use issues. Our peer-driven program is designed and directed by first responders who have been there and come out the other side. We know what works and are uniquely suited to help. If you or a colleague are struggling, please call our Frontline Peer Support Hotline at 866-854-7400. Your call will be answered by a first responder who understands and can help. Or you can contact John Becker Jr at 215-833-1572.
John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a unique understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services, for Sprout Health Group and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services. John is an active member of the Montgomery County (PA) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and is certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) for individual and group interventions. As a member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), John is skilled in working with unions, human resource departments, internal and external EAP’s, department counseling units, and peer support organizations. John is also a member of the National Police Suicide Foundation. Additionally, John has provided training to agencies and organizations, throughout the country, on topics such as stress, trauma, suicide, and addiction, as they relate to first responders. He can be reached at 215-833-1572 or JohnB@SproutHealthGroup.com