Addiction & Mental Health Resources for First Responders

Emergency responders are the first professionals on the scene after an accident, a medical emergency or even a mass-casualty incident. The unique pressure of a first responder job can often take quite an emotional toll, and it is not uncommon for law enforcement personnel, firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics to develop problems with drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. While admitting that they need help can be difficult for those who work in emergency services, obtaining treatment for addiction by enrolling in a rehab or recovery program might make a life-saving difference.

Addiction Among First Responders

While it is possible for anyone to develop a drinking problem or to become addicted to either prescription medications or street drugs, first responders are often at increased risk. This is due to a variety of factors, which typically include:

• Work that takes place within a dangerous or high-stress environment
• Use of habit-forming prescription medications to treat work-related injuries or to help manage chronic pain
• A workplace culture that often views addiction as unprofessional or a sign of personal weakness
• A tendency to self-medicate when managing the symptoms of stress, burnout, depression or even post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD

Regardless of the contributing factors that may lead to addiction, first responders who have developed a drinking problem or who suffer from chemical dependency often require formal medical treatment in order to begin the process of recovery.

Drug and Alcohol Use Among Law Enforcement

Rates of addiction and chemical dependency among police officers and other law enforcement personnel are up to three times higher than those of the general public. Even among seasoned veterans, the high-stress nature of the job can become more than these professionals can take. Becoming a police officer means having to deal with dangerous situations and being forced to act or take responsibility during a crisis, altercation or emergency situation. Many police officers experience events that may result in lasting emotional trauma, so they end up turning to drugs or alcohol in an effort to find an escape.

Drinking is especially widespread within the law enforcement community because police officers often feel pressured to join their colleagues for a drink following a long shift or a stressful event. Despite training and education programs designed to provide law enforcement professionals with an updated understanding regarding drug addiction, outdated attitudes continue to be a problem within many police departments. Many law enforcement professionals who suffer from addiction are reluctant to seek help due to a fear of how their colleagues and peers might view them. In reality, making the decision to enter rehab is not a display of weakness but a courageous act.

Substance Use Among Firefighters

Firefighters have a very demanding job, one that often requires them to place themselves in danger and endure high levels of both mental stress and physical strain. Firefighters are typically on call for the duration of their shift, which can last 24 hours or longer, and they may be forced to respond to an emergency at any time with little to no advanced warning. Maintaining such a schedule can be quite a challenge, and it is not uncommon for firefighters to experience additional stress due to the poor sleep habits that they develop.

Alcoholism and binge drinking are especially prevalent within the firefighting community. Drinking problems can be very problematic; as firefighting crews often develop a strong sense of camaraderie, individuals who may be struggling to keep their drinking under control are often pressured into joining their peers for drinks after a shift.

Rates of physical injury are also extremely high throughout the industry, with more than 60,000 on-duty injuries reported in 2019. Use of prescription painkillers to treat a work-related injury can become a gateway to addiction. Many firefighters become dependent on opioids and other prescription painkillers after being injured in the line of duty. Seeking professional help from a rehab center is the best way to overcome this type of addiction.

Addiction Within Emergency Medical Services

While EMTs and paramedics experience many of the same situations, challenges, and stressors as other first responders, there are also plenty of elements that are unique to this occupation. EMS workers are tasked with caring for patients outside of a hospital setting and are routinely required to make life-or-death decisions, often without the support and other resources that may be found within a hospital setting. While EMTs are less likely to find themselves placed in immediate danger, there are still plenty of occupational hazards, and instances of burnout, depression, and PTSD are quite high.

Drug use and addiction are often higher among paramedics and EMTs than with other first responders, but due to limited research and data, the reasons behind this trend are not immediately clear. Many field medics are required to work the same 24-hour shift as firefighters, and the schedule itself can be a major contributing factor to sleep and eating disorders, as well as high levels of chronic stress. Emergency workers may choose not to report a problem with drugs or alcohol for fear of the harm that may be done to their professional image, reputation, and standing within the industry.

Recognizing the Signs of a Drug Addiction

The signs that someone may be suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction can vary from one individual to the next, but some of the most common symptoms include:

• Mood swings and bouts of depression
• Trouble focusing on work or personal interests
• Too much or too little sleep
• Excessive stress, burnout, or apathy

Many of these symptoms are easily confused with problems caused by excessive job-related stress, a complication that can make it more difficult to recognize the signs that a first responder may be suffering from an addiction.

Dangers Associated With Drug and Alcohol Use

The dangers associated with drug use and excessive drinking are numerous and well-documented. In addition to the risk of a potentially fatal overdose, which emergency responders have likely seen firsthand, the physical dangers can include liver damage, increased instances of cancer or cardiovascular disease, and an increased risk of contracting many blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis or HIV, which can be spread by sharing an intravenous needle. A drug or alcohol addiction can also be a major contributing factor for developing clinical depression and other mental disorders.

Seeking treatment at the earliest opportunity can significantly reduce the risks associated with addiction. Prompt, professional treatment can help to improve the chances of a successful recovery while long-term care and emotional support resources can help individuals to avoid suffering from a relapse. Addiction is far more dangerous the longer it is left untreated, so first responders who have developed a problem with drugs or alcohol would do well to seek professional help without delay.

Seeking Emergency Care for Acute Detox and Withdrawal

While quitting cold turkey can be the best approach for dealing with some types of addiction, there are certain substances that can lead to problematic, physically painful, or even dangerous situations if you stop taking them abruptly. For long-term alcoholism or heavy opioid addiction, abrupt cessation can result in withdrawal symptoms that are severe or even life-threatening. Medically assisted withdrawal or a supervised detox process is safer, more comfortable, and more likely to succeed. When dealing with sudden-onset symptoms associated with long-term abuse, seeking emergency medical care is of the utmost importance.

Rehab Programs and Treatment Centers

Formal rehab programs often play a critical role in the recovery process. These programs provide treatment that focuses on teaching new coping skills, providing counseling services, and assisting with mental health disorders and the other issues that may have contributed to drug use and addiction. Rehab centers also provide a distraction-free environment and the opportunity for patients to interact and learn from their peers. While it is possible for some individuals to overcome their addiction even without formal treatment, seeking professional help by enrolling in a drug or alcohol rehab program is a decision that has made a critical difference for countless individuals.

Long-Term Emotional Support

Recovering from an addiction is a long-term process, one that often requires individuals to build and maintain an emotional support structure. While the love and support of family and friends can be a very valuable asset, emotional counseling services and support groups often prove to be just as essential. Discounting the need for ongoing support and assistance can drastically increase the risk that an individual may suffer a relapse, even if it has been years or even decades since they last used drugs or alcohol. Emotional support services often play a critical role in the treatment of depression, PTSD and the effects of past emotional trauma that may be the driving force behind addiction.

Creating a Treatment Plan

Every individual is different, so the treatment tools and resources used during rehab will vary. Designing an effective addiction recovery plan depends on a number of factors, which can include the type of substance, frequency of use, and any emotional or mental health-related issues that may have led an individual to begin drinking or abusing drugs. Admission to a treatment center or rehab program can provide access to education, counseling, and other resources that may be needed in order to maximize the chances of a complete and successful recovery.

The ability to tailor a treatment program to better fit the unique emotional needs of an individual is of even greater importance for those who have had problems with addiction in the past. Seeking treatment following a relapse may require additional resources in order to ensure that patients are able to avoid the same obstacles, unhealthy behaviors or missteps over and over again.

First City Recovery Center Can Help

At First City Recovery Center, we understand the unique challenges faced by first responders and emergency service workers who are battling a drug or alcohol addiction. Our services include a full range of treatment options in order to ensure that those who are seeking help will benefit from a recovery plan that has been tailored to their specific needs. We offer outpatient treatment as well as partial hospitalization options for those who require medical supervision or who may be struggling to overcome a more severe addiction.

We also understand the importance of providing emotional support during every step of the recovery process. Following admission, patients are provided with access to both group counseling and the individual therapy they may need in order to address an emotional trauma or to break free of the unhealthy habits that were feeding their addiction. Education, therapy and emotional support are often critical components for overcoming a drug or alcohol problem. We’re committed to helping our patients learn healthy ways to manage the stress that first responders often experience while on the job.

If you are suffering from a problem with drugs or alcohol, or if you have a friend or loved one who suffers from addiction, don’t wait. Contact us today to learn more about the help, treatment options and other services we offer.

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