Is adrenaline withdrawal leading to depression in retired officers?

 

While recently listening to a Kyle Reyes video clip about ‘Loss of Mission’ in front of a group of retired Marines, I had a very simple thought, “What are we missing?” when it comes to PTSD and police/military suicides?  We talk a lot about reaching out for help and that is extraordinarily important; but what gets a person to the spot where they need this help? Could a part (perhaps a big part) of PTSD be addiction withdrawal?

I have been a police officer for 23 years.  The first sixteen years of my career were spent as a field officer working in a high activity area.  When I decided that it was time to leave the road (the burnout had begun), the most important and honest question my wife asked of me was, “Are you going to be able to handle the slower pace of an office job?”  Of course I reassured her that I would be fine.  She, however, knew me better than perhaps even I knew myself… and she was worried. 

A NJ officer faces charges after fatally shooting the driver in a high-speed pursuit. (Newark PD)

 

Let’s be honest, a BIG part of becoming and remaining a Police Officer is the adrenaline rush. And, I can only presume that for military personnel in combat zones, the rush is similar.  Why is it that when dispatch broadcasts a “shots fired” or “man with a gun” call, every available unit starts that way, as fast as possible? Sure, it’s a sense of duty and the job (those are the politically correct things we tell the public and they are true) but, let’s be real – we love the rush of the chase and the fight! Adrenaline is a drug.  A very powerful drug.  

Not that anyone purposefully pedals the greatest drugs on earth (adrenaline and the associated endorphins) to you – they are an organic physiological response to high levels of stress and dangerous situations. Environments to which the nature of our work exposes us. Therefore, the human body becomes accustomed to these strong, intoxicating substances – needing more and more just like any drug user.  And so we use, because we must.  But secretly (if we are being real with ourselves and others), we like the rush and enjoy the high that it provides.  Additionally then, by extrapolation, the officers that work in the higher risk areas would have more exposure to adrenaline response inducing situations and would likely suffer more from the adverse effects of that adrenaline response.

So, what happens when our professional circumstances change and we are no longer regularly exposed to high risk situations or the situations we encounter are not stressful enough to invoke the response we are accustomed to experiencing?  Could we be experiencing “withdrawal”?  Could the effects of this withdrawal cause us to engage in elevated levels of risky behavior or depression? Anecdotally, it would appear that this is the case, with officers in the worst “districts” appearing to suffer from higher rates of PTSD and/or depressive attitudes.

Officers who no longer feel the “rush” might go looking for it in other situations. (Adobe Stock)

 

Given the complex nature of PTSD and/or depression, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a rapid and steady decline of adrenaline and endorphin output due to a change in our work environment could lead to symptoms that we would expect to see in persons that are addicted to other types of “high inducing” drugs.  Does the need to experience the “high” of adrenaline lead us to engage in other high risk behaviors that induce the adrenaline rush? Do we even realize that we have an addiction and that we are subconsciously trying to fill a void? As the lyrics to the OneRepublic song, “Counting Stars” state, “…Everything that kills me makes me feel alive…”

The hypothesis is simple; could adrenaline addiction withdrawal be a contributing factor in cases of self-harm, depression, PTSD and/or “loss of mission”?  And if this is a possibility, how do we (as a community) assist our brothers and sisters in overcoming this situation? 

Written by Captain David Dungan, IDNR Liaison – Indiana Government Center South

 

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