First responders are a collective group of community servers who help victims of trauma, violence, and other abuse. They include firefighters, law enforcement officers such as FBI agents and police officers, paramedics, military personnel, lifeguards, security guards, federal agents, U.S. marshals, rescuers, and Red Cross members, amongst many others. They are the first to rush to the emergency scene to rescue and treat the victims. First responders need to be specially trained and are equipped to deal with the aftereffects of various types of accidents, trauma, crime, natural disasters, and terrorism.
First responder trauma is a rising issue. First responders are highly prone to mental health issues because of their constant exposure to trauma and stress. Their emotional health is often in turmoil due to an unpredictable work environment and several challenges to deal with daily. Besides the significant physical risks they regularly face, including the dangers of violence and fire, they are also prone to high levels of emotional stress since they witness crime scenes, violence, and death. They work long hours, often with little sleep. The depression and anxiety faced due to such conditions can further lead to various symptoms, including frustration, anger, and substance abuse. Addictions affect not just the individual but also their families.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) states that 30% of first responders suffer from various behavior-related issues versus 20% of such sufferers amongst the general population. These issues include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, drug abuse, and alcohol addiction. While some first responders suffer from these conditions during their working life, many of them experience the symptoms in a magnified form once they retire. When there is nothing to keep them occupied, all the pent-up emotions from their tenure come bubbling to the surface. Not knowing how to cope with this pain, many ex-first responders take to substance abuse, including cannabis products, benzodiazepines, and opiate painkillers. First responders who have not had a smooth transition into retirement are more likely to turn to alcohol and drug abuse.
Mental Health Issues Leading to First Responder Addiction
The worry, fear, and threat of physical harm strain first responders. The realization that they may be unable to save everyone from their suffering compounds this. Some common conditions that first responders may suffer from include:
High Anxiety Levels
First responders may encounter anxiety issues, including panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), and various phobias.
Severe Depression and Suicidal Tendencies
First responders may suffer from varying levels of depression, and other feelings of hopelessness and guilt sometimes accompany these feelings. Insomnia, bulimia, and anorexia are other issues they experience. A high level of depression could lead to suicidal tendencies.
PTSD levels can vary from one responder to another and depend mainly on the severity of the traumatic episodes they’ve encountered.
Acute Stress Disorder
Acute stress disorder has symptoms similar to PTSD, but they occur for less than a month after the trauma occurs. Then, the symptoms dissipate on their own. They may binge on alcohol and drugs during stress but usually don’t get addicted to the substance. However, there are instances when the symptoms progressively worsen instead of getting better, leading to PTSD. This disorder can occur owing to being exposed first-hand to the traumatic event, being involved in it, or being witness to its aftermath. Auto accidents, natural disasters, social conflicts including war and riots, terrorist attacks, or severely violent abuse acts comprise some traumatic events.
When first responders suffer from a mental health issue and a substance abuse disorder, they experience co-occurring conditions. The severity of one issue depends on the other.
For information on how to start on your path to recovery, please call us at (888) 919-2561.
Factors That Restrict First Responders From Seeking Professional Help
While there is a lot of information available on various media to help mitigate the stigmas associated with first responder trauma and substance abuse, the fear of ridicule and judgment is still rife. Let’s explore some significant barriers to effective treatment.
Fear of Public Judgement
Many first responders feel that they may lose their respect in society if they admit to trauma and addiction. The stigmas associated with mental health are not entirely eradicated from society. There is a constant fear of being condemned by work colleagues and within social circles.
Fear of Failure
First responders are believed to be strong and resilient members of society, almost superheroes. They have a certain respect and standing. Some believe that they open themselves to public failure by acknowledging their addiction issue, especially if they struggle to cope after treatment.
Fear of Losing a Cherished Job
The fear of losing a job is real. First responders suffering from drug and alcohol abuse will need time off work. They worry that this time off reveals their secret to colleagues and, in their eyes, leaves them open to judgment. If their job may no longer be available once they return, it could prevent them from getting the help they badly need.
The cost of first responder addiction treatment could be quite high. Further, the first responder will need to take a break from work for the duration of therapy. They don’t always get paid for this leave of absence, and even if they do, it may be at a reduced pay rate. For a first responder who is the family’s primary breadwinner, this could play a deterring factor in seeking treatment.
For anyone, mental and physical health is essential to leading a wholesome and fulfilling life to provide for your family and enjoy a good lifestyle. It is even more critical for a first responder to enjoy good mental and physical health as they are open to various traumas daily. Being regularly prone to dangerous events and lack of sleep could exacerbate the problem.
The effects of treatment vary from one individual to another. Some may see quicker results, while others may take longer and need more therapy sessions to note positive effects. This makes them more sensitive and vulnerable to addiction and substance abuse. It’s imperative to seek therapy at a treatment center equipped to deal with your unique situation and need and guide you in your path to recovery. Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation can also help in facilitating recovery. It is also crucial for first responders to avoid working more than 12-hour shifts, develop strong social connections with family and friends, have a shoulder to lean on in difficult times, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Support organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association have helped educate and raise awareness about mental health issues and the subsequent substance abuse amongst first responders. These organizations have also helped provide widespread access to effective therapy and treatment.
The Transformations Treatment Center and the Transformations at Mending Fences offer the one-of-a-kind “Help For Our Heroes” Program. This therapy program has successfully assisted first responders and military veterans in identifying and overcoming the underlying problems that have led to their addiction. It has been aptly designed, led by an ex-first responder and military veteran, considering all factors. This Master’s level therapist has built the program primarily to assist emergency officers in combating their addictions. This program focuses highly on stress management, as stress is the root cause of all traumatic habits in first responders. Depression and suicide rates are alarmingly high in first responders, and the Help For Our Heroes therapy program has ably guided many first responders in the country past their addictions.
To know more about our offering and how we can help you, please get in touch with us here.
First Responder Addiction and Connection to Treatment (FR-ACT) Department of Health