First Responders: Addiction and Mental Health

First responders carry the weight of so many lives, emergencies, and disasters. Despite their skill and training, the pressures of their work make first responders susceptible to addiction and mental health disorders.

First Responders: Addiction and Mental Health

First responders carry the weight of so many lives, emergencies, and disasters. Despite their skill and training, the pressures of their work make first responders susceptible to addiction and mental health disorders.

First responders face unique challenges in treating their mental health and addiction.

During an emergency, first responders are on call and on the scene to provide much-needed assistance. Police, firefighters, emergency medical services, and other rescue workers prevail through pain, danger, and stress to protect lives from harm.

While officers exhibit amazing levels of dedication and sacrifice, they are still human. The constant exposure to the physical and mental health challenges in this line of workplaces officers at high risk of developing mental health conditions. An estimated 30% of responders live with disorders like depression and PTSD.

Many first responders resort to alcohol and other addictive substances to cope with the strain. One study reported that 58% of career firefighters and 40% of volunteer firefighters drank heavily on their days off.

Dealing with mental health concerns and substance use disorder as a first responder can be challenging for many reasons, from the culture of silence to the stigma surrounding an officer seeking help rather than giving it.

First responders struggling with these issues need to know that they are not weak and not alone. Help is available.  

Substance use among police officers

Police officers regularly intervene in dangerous scenarios and witness personal struggles. As a normal part of their roles, they relay bad news and cope with the loss of their colleagues.

Also, law enforcement often demands long and irregular hours. Shifts over holidays, work-related injuries, and the risk of poor perception in communities where agents live are known struggles. There is a stoic culture that expects officers to manage all of this without voicing complaints.

To cope, many officers turn to alcohol or drugs. A 2011 study recorded a 7.8% incidence of lifetime alcohol abuse in a police unit. Around 11% of male and 15% of female officers were viewed as at risk of alcohol dependence. This is exacerbated by the hard-drinking culture in many precincts. Officers are also at high risk of drug use. 

Police officers’ concerns about seeking addiction treatment

While many law enforcement officers deal with alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, they’re often wary of seeking treatment. Here are some of the concerns we’ve heard from police officers: 
  • A lot of police are reluctant to trust health experts, especially if they aren’t confident that they already treat law enforcement agents.
  • Police officers are subject to fit-for-duty evaluations. Seeking help to deal with mental health or substance use could affect their performance and threaten their job security.
  • Because officers are restricted from using strong painkillers and benzodiazepines, they may avoid seeking expert help to cope with pain. This may be because of a fear that health officers will not understand the need to limit these drugs.

Substance use among firefighters.

For many firefighters, alcohol seems like a necessary form of self-medication that allows them to weather the difficulties of work-life. Firefighters routinely deal with the devastation of fire, provide support to accident victims, and assist with rescue missions caused by natural disasters. This job description comes with its fair share of trauma, which can cause insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. A lot of firefighters use alcohol both as a way to cope with these difficulties and to bond with their fellows in the fire brigade. Firefighters are also prone to work-related injuries, which may lead to dependence on pain medication.  

Fire fighters’ concerns about seeking addiction treatment.

Fire fighters’ concerns about seeking addiction treatmentMany firefighters struggle with substance use or mental health but put off getting treatment. Here are some of the concerns we’ve heard from firefighters:
  • A lack of trust that health experts will understand firefighter culture.
  • Volunteer firefighters may lack access to effective addiction treatment that can help them overcome substance abuse. In contrast, career firefighters may have access to treatment through organizational insurance or employee assistance programs but hesitate to use them out of fear that their chief or brigade will know. 
  • Firefighters live and work with their peers. This proximity may cause a firefighter to resist scenarios that cause them to stand out as different, e.g, seeking help for substance abuse. 
  • Some firefighters consider it a show of weakness to seek help for a dependency.

Substance use among Emergency Medical Technicians.

EMTs and paramedics provide urgent care to accident victims and those in need of pressing medical attention. In their daily roles, these responders come in contact with car wrecks, drug overdoses, stabbings, and more. EMTs take on considerable trauma when carrying out their duties, and many develop mental health issues as a result. This can encourage the use of different coping mechanisms, including unhealthy ones like drinking and drug use.

EMTs’ and paramedics’ concerns about seeking addiction treatment.

Many firefighters struggle with substance use or mental health but put off getting treatment. Here are some of the concerns we’ve heard from firefighters:
  • Many EMTs identify with their role as the strong care-provider, and fear appearing weak by seeking expert help.
  • EMTs and paramedics may worry about a breach of confidentiality should they seek outside help, including fear of professional repercussions.
  • With round-the-clock demands, EMTs may not have the time to spare for treatment at rehabs.

Police Officers

Police officers regularly intervene in dangerous scenarios and witness personal struggles. As a normal part of their roles, they relay bad news and cope with the loss of their colleagues.

Also, law enforcement often demands long and irregular hours. Shifts over holidays, work-related injuries, and the risk of poor perception in communities where agents live are known struggles. There is a stoic culture that expects officers to manage all of this without voicing complaints.

To cope, many officers turn to alcohol or drugs. A 2011 study recorded a 7.8% incidence of lifetime alcohol abuse in a police unit. Around 11% of male and 15% of female officers were viewed as at risk of alcohol dependence. This is exacerbated by the hard-drinking culture in many precincts. Officers are also at high risk of drug use.

While many law enforcement officers deal with alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, they’re often wary of seeking treatment. Here are some of the concerns we’ve heard from police officers: 

  • A lot of police are reluctant to trust health experts, especially if they aren’t confident that they already treat law enforcement agents.
  • Police officers are subject to fit-for-duty evaluations. Seeking help to deal with mental health or substance use could affect their performance and threaten their job security.
  • Because officers are restricted from using strong painkillers and benzodiazepines, they may avoid seeking expert help to cope with pain. This may be because of a fear that health officers will not understand the need to limit these drugs.

Fire Fighters

For many firefighters, alcohol seems like a necessary form of self-medication that allows them to weather the difficulties of work-life. Firefighters routinely deal with the devastation of fire, provide support to accident victims, and assist with rescue missions caused by natural disasters. 

This job description comes with its fair share of trauma, which can cause insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. A lot of firefighters use alcohol both as a way to cope with these difficulties and to bond with their fellows in the fire brigade.

Firefighters are also prone to work-related injuries, which may lead to dependence on pain medication.  

Many firefighters struggle with substance use or mental health but put off getting treatment. Here are some of the concerns we’ve heard from firefighters: 

  • A lack of trust that health experts will understand firefighter culture.
  • Volunteer firefighters may lack access to effective addiction treatment that can help them overcome substance abuse. In contrast, career firefighters may have access to treatment through organizational insurance or employee assistance programs but hesitate to use them out of fear that their chief or brigade will know. 
  • Firefighters live and work with their peers. This proximity may cause a firefighter to resist scenarios that cause them to stand out as different, e.g, seeking help for substance abuse. 
  • Some firefighters consider it a show of weakness to seek help for a dependency.

Emergency Medical Technicians

EMTs and paramedics provide urgent care to accident victims and those in need of pressing medical attention. In their daily roles, these responders come in contact with car wrecks, drug overdoses, stabbings, and more.

EMTs take on considerable trauma when carrying out their duties, and many develop mental health issues as a result. This can encourage the use of different coping mechanisms, including unhealthy ones like drinking and drug use.

Many firefighters struggle with substance use or mental health but put off getting treatment. Here are some of the concerns we’ve heard from firefighters: 

  • Many EMTs identify with their role as the strong care-provider, and fear appearing weak by seeking expert help.
  • EMTs and paramedics may worry about a breach of confidentiality should they seek outside help, including fear of professional repercussions.
  • With round-the-clock demands, EMTs may not have the time to spare for treatment at rehabs.
First Responder getting ready for a shift

Signs of Addiction in First Responders

It can be difficult to tell when substance use is becoming a problem. But there are signs of addiction to look out for. Primarily, these signs are changes in behavior. Isolation from others, difficulty carrying out daily roles, spending large sums of money, asking for financial assistance, making excuses to rationalize or cover up how much they’re drinking or using … when drinking or drug use have negative life consequences, it’s a red flag.

There can also be other observable signs, which include:

  • Dilated pupils
  • Increase or decrease in weight
  • Tremors or shakiness
  • Change in skin tone
  • Compromised decision making
  • Poor coordination
  • Jumpiness
  • Increased or reduced energy levels
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Slurred or unclear speech

Getting help for addiction

It’s estimated that only one in ten people who need treatment for addiction receive it. First responders are often among the majority who struggle alone, whether out of fear of professional consequences, lack of access to treatment, difficult work schedules, or peer pressure that normalizes substance use while dismissing help. Despite these concerns, first responders deserve support to get their lives back. And taking care of themselves will make them better equipped to protect and rescue others.

Treatment can offer support that will help stabilize addiction recovery and care for the other mental health concerns that might be tied to substance use. While many first responders do not feel able to go away to an in-person rehab for thirty or sixty days, the rise in telemedicine has made it possible to receive effective, science-backed addiction treatment via phone or computer. Workit Health’s app is HIPAA compliant and discreet, and offers both clinical treatment and behavioral therapy from the privacy of home.

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