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Emergency responders are first on the scene of some of the most dangerous and demanding situations, providing immediate care, support, and medical assistance to survivors in the aftermath of a crime or disaster. These heroic duties are essential to society; however, they can be very strenuous and emotionally draining to those in the profession. The constant exposure to devastation, life-threatening situations, and physical strain of working long hours under stressful conditions can negatively impact overall mental health. Consequently, there is a tragically close relationship between addiction and emergency responders.
The term “emergency responders” includes police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services such as paramedics and EMTs. These industry professionals are exposed to situations that many people would not be able to emotionally bear, increasing the risk of the development of mental health disorders. It is estimated that 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions during their time of service, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Despite the importance of mental health in the profession, there is an undeniable cultural stigma concerning mental health care treatment. Fear of being seen as weak or not up to the job of a first responder keeps many from seeking help and can lead suffering individuals to turn to substance abuse as a means of relief.
When a person turns to alcohol or drugs for self-medicating purposes, they are more likely to become dependent than an individual that is a recreational user. In fact, 50% of those with mental health disorders are thought to be affected by addiction. Due to acute stress and trauma, it’s common for emergency responders to develop co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders (SUDs).
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As a result of their occupation, police officers face a great deal of stress and trauma on a day-to-day basis. In addition to the threat of physical harm, many officers routinely witness devastating and disturbing events such as murder, suicide, domestic violence, and illicit drug abuse. Those in law enforcement additionally experience work-related stress regarding their roles and reception in the community. Police officers are at a higher risk of drug abuse than the general population, and they are at a significantly higher risk of alcohol abuse. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that many cops have easy access to illegal drugs when they arrest drug dealers or respond to overdose calls.
A 2010 study of police officers working in urban areas found that 11% of male officers and 16% of female officers reported alcohol use levels that are deemed “at-risk” by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Researchers attribute the high alcohol consumption rates among police officers to both social and stress-induced drinking behaviors. Of the social factors identified in hazardous alcohol consumption, the primary one was drinking to “fit in” with peers; 25% of police officers report drinking “to be part of the team” during social outings. The most important contributor to alcohol consumption among police officers, however, is the stress and trauma officers face daily in the line of duty.
Firefighters spend their days braving burning and collapsing buildings to save civilian lives. Firefighters are subject to many of the same traumatic psychological risks as police officers but are at the additional physical risk of severe burns, smoke inhalation, lung damage, and other on-the-job injuries. The long 24-hour shifts and traumatic calls lead countless firefighters to develop mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, and depression. Many individuals struggling with these issues then turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of symptom relief. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that up to 29% of firefighters engage in alcohol abuse, and as many as 10% of firefighters may be currently abusing prescription drugs.
Rates of binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption are higher among firefighters than the general population. Similar to police officers, there are multiple social factors contributing to the high rates of hazardous alcohol consumption among firefighters, including acts of camaraderie, peer support, and “fire-station culture.” A number of firefighters additionally report using alcohol as a means of managing the stress of emergency calls and for “winding down.” Aside from seeking support from friends and family, alcohol use was reported as the second leading coping strategy of firefighters in a 2017 survey.
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Paramedics and EMTs are emergency medical service technicians that are dispatched to the scene of an emergency, which can include traumatic incidents such as car accidents, fires, personal injuries, and shootings or stabbings. In addition to serving 24-hour shifts, EMTs are responsible for life-and-death decisions regarding their patients. These professionals face a number of occupational hazards and, like police officers and firefighters, are also at greater risk of developing mental stress-related disorders than the general population. According to SAMHSA, 36% of EMS workers suffer from depression, 72% of EMTs suffer from sleep deprivation, and more than 20% of EMTs suffer from PTSD; all of which puts them at an increased risk of substance abuse.
Drug abuse is much higher among paramedics and EMTs compared to other emergency responder professions. The limited research has not yet revealed why, but it is believed to be a combination of factors including easy access to potent and addictive prescription medications and high stress exposure levels. The stress and trauma that this industry incurs drives many professionals towards substance abuse in an effort to cope with the severe psychological strain they encounter on a daily basis.
Treatment includes individual therapy, group therapy, 12-step programs, nutritional therapy, family therapy, drug and alcohol detox, and additional ancillary services in either an inpatient or outpatient treatment setting. Treatment has also been proven to be significantly beneficial when it is grouped with other individuals from similar occupations. For more information on treatment options:
Seeking treatment for addiction issues can prove to be difficult for many people, especially emergency responders who are used to being the ones helping others. However, you have to take care of yourself first before you can help the others that may need you. The trauma and stress that emergency responders encounter on a daily basis can be debilitating and push industry professionals to substance abuse. If you’re a first responder struggling with addiction, know that you’re not alone. Contact a treatment provider to learn about your options today, and start on the path to recovery.
Jena Hilliard earned her Bachelor’s of Arts degree from the University of Central Florida in English Literature. She has always had a passion for literature and the written word. Upon graduation, Jena found her purpose in educating the public on addiction and helping those that struggle with substance dependency find the best treatment options available.
Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional
Theresa Parisi is a Certified Addiction Professional (CAP), Certified Behavioral Health Case Manager (CBHCM), and International Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) with over 12 years of experience in the addiction treatment field.
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