First responders such as police officers and firefighters deal with daily struggles and crises. This increases their odds of becoming dependent on a substance or developing mental health disorders. Even though they undergo a degree of emotional hardening through training, first responders are often worn down slowly by daily dramas.
The category of “first responders” is made up of police, firefighters, paramedics, military personnel, prison guards, emergency medical technicians and rescuers in general. Frequently, the day-to-day scenarios these professionals encounter have the potential to cause an array of trauma-based disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
With the daily risks of life-threatening encounters combined with the physical and mental strain of working for long hours, first responders have a higher risk of turning to drugs or alcohol as a means to cope with their lives. Getting adequate help is frequently difficult because it means that their aura of invincibility is tainted or even falls away entirely. Some feel that they might not even be fit for their job any longer; a mental health issue will imply, in their minds, that they are too weak to deal with the realities of their career field.
Although addiction and mental health issues have a negative impact on first responders’ lives, there is help available.
Rate of Addiction in First Responders
Despite few long-term studies relating to alcohol or drug addictions among first responders, some research reflects that it is a growing problem in society. Usually, alcohol is the most abused substance of choice. However, a wide variety of substances present a temptation of escapism for the suffering individual.
According to the Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida, roughly 9% of studied first responders admitted to binge drinking within the last month. Police officers and firefighters have the lowest incidents of illegal drug use, but as many as 10% say that they have abused drugs at some point.
Being addicted to a substance comes with a lot of nuance in the eyes of first responders. They often deal with instances where they can see the grave impacts of those who are struggling with addiction, especially the effects on the youngest and oldest members of society.
Physical injuries both acute and chronic are gateways into opioids and other prescription painkillers. Though first responders might understand well enough the dangers and detrimental impacts of substance abuse, having highly painful injuries and taking equally powerful painkillers can lead to a physical dependency no matter how strong willpower is. Even though illicit substance abuse will inevitably cause conflicts with working life, even something as innocuous as smoking tobacco could have just as catastrophic health consequences.
First Responders, Mental Health Disorders and Addiction
A study performed in 2008 investigated the factors for resilience that first responders possess. Researchers found among 961 people surveyed a high level of understanding and a low level of burnout acceptance. The survey, conducted online, measured self-efficiency, collective efficiency, sense of community and mental health-related outcomes derived from work. Researchers found that a stronger sense of duty and community responsibility acted as prevention against mental health degradation.
Among those handling the European refugee crisis since 2017, first responders who cover the entire Mediterranean risk physical and mental health outcomes at a higher rate than the average population, and this is compounded further in the cases where there are ideological differences among first responders and stated objectives. Up to 72% reported low levels of perceived well-being. This included feelings of burnout as well as severe, long-lasting issues such as PTSD. Seeing the dead bodies of adults and children also impacted the overall outcome of long-term mental health for those offering first-aid services. Some began to abuse alcohol as a result.
A survey from the University of Phoenix discovered that mental health challenges are typical among first responders, even if they don’t admit to having it. If help is available, it frequently goes under-utilized. Roughly 85% of those who have been surveyed have gone through symptoms of mental health issues. Nearly one-third were formally diagnosed with a mental condition. More than 25% of those who were diagnosed had depression. In addition, a fire department is three times more likely to experience death from suicide rather than death during an active response. Due to their reluctance to have their issues addressed, first responders are increasingly likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.
Studies like these highlight that there is a growing need for effective intervention programs that can spot and solve occupational and mental well-being issues that impact first responders before addiction sets in.
Substance Use Disorder and Police Officers
Law enforcement officers deal with a high number of stresses on a day-to-day basis. Not merely at the risk of physical harm, many in the police field encounter scenes of abuse and suicide. Additionally, many experience stresses from work relating to their community roles and how they are perceived by their community. Officers are at a higher risk of succumbing to alcohol use disorders than the average person. As many law enforcement personnel also have access to illegal substances, they can use them to attempt to cope.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that in 2010, there were 16% of female officers and 18% of male officers who were experiencing adverse consequences from alcohol abuse. Researchers say that this high rate of alcohol intake is because of work-related and peer-pressure conditions. The primary social factor that led to officers drinking was because they wanted to “fit in” with their peers, especially during social events. The most significant factor for general alcohol consumption was the stress from day-to-day life.
Substance Use Disorder and Firefighters
Firefighters must risk life and limb to rescue civilians from dangerous situations. They are often subject to psychological traumas from witnessing severe burns and other types of fatal injuries. Shifts can last as long as 24 hours, which can become very dangerous if performed too often. Nearly one-third of firefighters participate in binge drinking, and up to 10% are actively abusing prescription-only drugs such as opioids.
When compared to the general population, the risks of binge drinking are much higher in firefighters. Not dissimilar to police officers, several social and psychological variables contribute to the increased rates of alcohol use; usually, acts of camaraderie and the idea of friendly outings involve alcohol in some means or another. Typically, it will be described as a “cooling down” experience after the struggles of the day. According to a 2018 study, alcohol was the second most popular coping mechanism for firefighters.
Substance Use Disorder in EMTs and Paramedics
Emergency medical technicians who are deployed to accidents and other traumatic occurrences are frequently exposed to gruesome sights. This can include bearing witness to everything from shootings and stabbings to people being crushed or decapitated. EMTs are frequently expected to perform 24-hour shifts. In addition, paramedics are required to make decisions with little time to deliberate, which could mean the difference between life and death. They must do this while also managing the significant personal physical risks involved in working in such hazardous areas.
According to one U.K. study, more than 20% of EMTs and paramedics suffer from PTSD, and 72% of EMTs and paramedics have experienced severe sleep deprivation symptoms. The same resource claims that up to 36% of EMTs and paramedics also suffer from depression. Emergency medical service providers are at a higher risk for all forms of substance abuse than the general population.
More than any other emergency responder position, EMTs and paramedics are at risk of drug abuse. There has not been enough research on the causes to establish just why this is, but some believe that it’s a complex combination of factors such as high stress from the job and easy access to drugs. The elevated trauma and stress drive many paramedics to cope with their severe psychological load by relying on the use of mind-altering substances.
Signs of Addiction in First Responders
Mental health issues and substance addictions present frequently through similar though sometimes unexpected behaviors. These symptoms can include:
- Being irritated or overly impatient
- Showing increasingly defiant or angry behavior
- Having panic attacks and a general increase in anxiety
- Going through extreme mood swings that can be unpredictable
- Speaking very quickly or very slowly
- Experiencing a lack of coordination
- Falling asleep randomly and experiencing general lethargy
- Appearing overly energetic and hyperactive
- Experiencing tremors, twitching, or shaking of eyelids and hands
- Having constricted or dilated pupils
- Not being able to maintain eye contact
- Having needle marks or pinpricks on arms or legs
- Having burned lips or fingers
- Struggling to make decisions
- Needing constant reminders to do tasks
- Having trouble with basic performance such as filing paperwork
- Not showing up to work
Due to the physical pain incurred from performing in EMT and law enforcement work, painkillers and prescription drug abuse are major problems since they are more readily available.
Self-Care for First Responders
It is typical for first responders to be educated in screening survivors for detrimental health effects due to behavioral issues. Presently, the career field is magnifying how inner strength and resilience can be built through frequent and meaningful self-care. Similar to how first responders put so much on the line to help others, so too must they set aside time for themselves to maintain their emotional, physical and mental well-being.
SAMHSA recommends multiple different techniques for self-care:
- Keep in close contact with your support network of friends and family.
- Look forward to positive things in life.
- Take time off from work to unwind.
- Reach out to a leader of your faith and practice spiritual beliefs.
- Take time for yourself so that you can rest and reflect on life properly.
- Mourn sorrows and celebrate successes as a group with coworkers in a way that does not involve drugs or alcohol.
- Learn about your coworkers.
- Wash yourself when you leave work, even if it’s just your face, as though the problems of the day were going down the drain.
- Practice good hygiene.
- Wear clean clothes.
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat a nutritionally balanced meal three times a day.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get help if you are addicted to a substance from a reputable source.
Challenges When Seeking Help and Selecting a Good Rehabilitation Center
It’s important to understand that there are many options out there, but for those who suffer from substance use disorder, the highest rates of success usually come from being part of an in-house rehabilitation process. Finding a rehabilitation clinic that understands the personal concerns about how one’s community sees them and their unique job is paramount.
Places such as NFA Behavioral Health provide a small client-to-clinician ratio to help ensure an individualized treatment program has the best odds for success. Science-backed regimens are handled by a staff of medically trained, board-certified professionals who have a stellar track record of helping people conquer their addictions.
Our specialists can help with detoxification, which is very dangerous if performed alone. The risks can even include death. As the body has usually become accustomed to the addictive substances, the sudden shift in balance means that withdrawal symptoms can be severe as the body seeks a new equilibrium. The average person, even one as skilled and determined as a first responder, has difficulty handling the severe and debilitating pains that come with withdrawal. Medical professionals at our inpatient detox center not only will ease the burdens of withdrawal, but they’ll also make sure the sufferer stays alive and as comfortable as possible while doing so.
Long-term recovery from alcohol or drug use dictates that a comprehensive life change is often in order. To help facilitate this, our recovery specialists at New Freedom Academy institute a 12-step program that’s ideal for handling follow-up programming so that emergency responders can keep helping their communities.