Although essential to community health and safety, these heroic duties of first responders are often emotionally and physically draining. Regular exposure to death, life-threatening situations, and devastation, coupled with working long hours (sometimes forty-eight-hour shifts) under abnormally stressful conditions, significantly impact one’s mental health. However, first responders are some of the last to seek mental health or addiction treatment help.
Studies show first responders are at an increased risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues with mental health. Data from 2022 suggests that 24% of dispatchers and 35% of police officers have PTSD. In addition, it is estimated that 10% of paramedics and 37% of firefighters meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.1
Challenges First Responders Face
First responders encounter many different challenges on a daily basis that can significantly affect their mental health. From experiencing traumatic events at work to struggling with adverse mental health symptoms at home, these difficulties stretch across many aspects of their lives.
The most common challenges first responders face (often directly related to on-the-job experiences) include depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts.
There is an unfortunate and dangerous stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. The idea that first responders and emergency services workers must remain strong, brave, and able to handle the most demanding situations prevents them from seeking and getting the help they need. A survey by the University of Phoenix found that 57% of first responders believe they will face repercussions for seeking mental health counseling. 2
Stress is a common factor that affects many first responders’ mental health. Stress can be acute or chronic and lead to various mental health conditions. As symptoms of these conditions worsen, it is not uncommon for alcohol abuse and drug abuse to develop from harmful coping mechanisms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than from injury sustained in the line of duty. Recent data shows that first responders are approximately 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the public.3
Signs of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in First Responders
- Changes in appearance
- Dilated pupils
- Weight changes
- Significant changes in physical and mental health
- Changes in personal hygiene
- The presence of drug paraphernalia
Late signs of drug addiction or alcohol addiction may include legal and financial problems and a further decline in mental and physical health.
Alcohol Use and Police Officers
Police officers have challenging jobs. Research shows their work consistently ranks among the most stressful occupations. Therefore, it is unsurprising that police officers turn to alcohol to cope with stress and mental health challenges. One study found that 7.8% of officers had abused alcohol or were dependent on alcohol at one point in their lives.4
Substance Use and Paramedics and EMTs
Although paramedics and EMTs care for people struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, substance abuse among first responders is not uncommon. Their work exposes them to significant emotional trauma, resulting in higher rates of mental illness and substance use disorders.
A study examining mental health issues in first responders found that 29.6% of paramedics had depression, 24.5% had PTSD, and 10.3% had panic disorder. These conditions can increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder.5
Substance Abuse and Firefighters
Firefighters’ jobs increase their risk for trauma, injury, and mental health challenges, such as PTSD and anxiety. Many who struggle with these disorders often turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms. In 2017, nearly 50% of male firefighters and 39.5% of female firefighters reported binge drinking.6
Job Security and Addiction Treatment for First Responders
Many first responders fear that seeking addiction or mental health treatment will lead to job loss. Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employment for those who seek treatment for various disorders, such as substance use and mental health disorders.
The ADA requires all employers to work actively with their employees to ensure they have access to the help they need. This may include helping navigate the challenges of requesting time off using the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or providing time off.
Treatment to Help First Responders
Addiction treatment for first responders is similar to treatment for others with mental health and substance use disorders. For most, addiction treatment includes detoxification and therapy in either an inpatient rehab or outpatient rehab center.
In addition to evidence-based therapeutic models like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), medication-assisted treatment and peer support groups, such as 12-Step programs, are helpful, especially when the groups consist of individuals from similar professions.
Resources for First Responders
In addition to treatment at a facility like Great Oaks Recovery Center, various nationwide organizations are available to provide support and guidance for first responders seeking recovery. Below is a list of services you can ask your primary care or mental health provider:7
- PTSD Foundation of America
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline
- The Salvation Army
- Employee Assistance Programs
Treatment at Great Oaks Recovery Center
We rely on first responders to be a source of strength and support during our darkest moments. It is vital to ensure they receive the help and guidance they need to maintain physical and mental health. If you are a first responder struggling with addiction, contact us at Great Oaks Recovery Center to learn more about our specialized addiction treatment programs for first responders.