Criminals Bank on Heroin Withdrawal?

Recently, I went to a bank robbery at a movie theater – well, sort of. Actually, this robbery played out in a movie called, “Hell or High Water,” destined to become one of the best movies of the year. It is the story of two brothers in Texas who decide that financial recovery from plummeting oil prices can be found by holding-up banks. I would soon discover that life imitates art.

Days later I received a call from an employee assistance program vendor asking if I would respond to a Texas bank robbery. I am trained in critical incident stress management, which means I am sent to workplaces or communities rocked by man-made or natural disasters. I use either one-on-one or group psychological interventions to help stabilize a specific population, provide them education and discuss how they can recover from the trauma. My last large scale response was a mass casualty shooting in Washington, D.C. in 2013 where 12 people were gunned down at the Navy Yard. What were the chances that I would see this movie, and then be sent to my first bank robbery?

Like the movie, this seemed to be your typical hold-up – man with a gun walks in, demands cash, and then leaves. Research reveals many bank tellers suffer through multiple robberies in their careers, some feeling the cold barrel of a hand gun pressed against their temples as they are threatened with death. In spite of FBI statistics that say robbery injuries or fatal shootings are rare, what is often stolen and injured is the teller’s sense of safety.

After a hold-up, bank workers can be challenged by typical responses to trauma such as shock, anxiety, fear, and anger. Many bank workers have nightmares and other sleep disturbances and are haunted by “what if” questions that can include: “what if I was shot, what if one of my co-workers was killed, what if I never see my kids again?” Many face hypervigilance in the form of scrutinizing every person who enters the bank. Each time that door opens and a customer walks-in, some tellers might experience a shudder moving through them like the ripples a pebble makes when dropped in water. Others may have trouble focusing and keeping their cash difference discrepancies (settle out amount at end of day) to a minimum.

Two weeks after doing the psychological intervention, I was called out on another Texas bank robbery. It was the same financial institution but another location, hit the Friday before Labor Day. That’s two robberies in about fourteen days in the same city. I quickly learned that most robberies take place on Fridays (9 to 11a.m), many on the Friday before a three-day holiday and last just mintues (FBI, 2015).

FBI statistics say bank robberies in the U.S. increased from 3879 in 2014 to 4030 in 2015. Why? There are some suggestions that it started with relaxed U.S. marijuana laws. Legalization has taken a bite of Mexican drug cartel profits (Miroff, 2015) and the business disruption has caused drug kingpins to turn away from THC and toward heroin trafficking. The influx of heroin, which in many cases is less expensive than opioid pain killers, has sparked an epidemic of overdoses. In a number of states including Massachusetts (Henrich, 2016), Michigan (Waterman, 2016), and New York (Schram, 2016) there are reports of robbers hitting banks for quick cash followed by a quick score at the end of a needle. Can the intersection of falling oil prices and the rising use of heroin be found at the end of a gun at your local bank?

I pondered this question as I exited the bank after this most recent critical incident response. I had a newly found admiration for the bank worker. The teller that has one eye on the presidents, one eye on the front door and a smile thanking me for my business, has a psychological sense of resilience that I now appreciate as I look through the bullet proof glass. Some of that world was captured in that movie- a work of fiction that might be closer to the truth.


FBI. (2015). Bank Crime Statistics. Washington, D.C. : U.S. Department of Justice.

Henrich, M. (2016, May 10). Retrieved from Fox 25.

Miroff, N. (2015, January 11). The Americas. Retrieved from The Washington Post: Losing marijuana business, Mexican cartels push heroin and meth

Schram, J. (2016, August 15). Metro. Retrieved from New York Post: Hat-loving serial bank robber used cash to fuel heroin habit

Waterman, C. (2016, July 12). Retrieved from Michigan Live: Heroin addict turned bank robber gets up to 20 years in prison

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