Most people don’t deal with true disasters every day at work. First responders, however, handle disasters all the time. Firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and other emergency professionals are the first to arrive at traumatic scenes.
Because of their unique jobs, first responders have unique mental health concerns. For example, many first responders may exhibit signs of opioid addiction or another drug or alcohol use disorder. Substance abuse is a major concern for emergency personnel, and several factors contribute to this issue.
Stress and PTSD
Perhaps the most prominent risk factor for addiction among first responders is stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These professionals frequently witness fires, violence, and medical emergencies, and those emergencies can cause trauma.
Not all first responders will experience PTSD, but they do have a higher risk for this disorder than the general population. Signs of PTSD can include:
- reliving traumatic events through flashbacks and nightmares
- startling easily
- feelings of guilt
- mood swings
Even among first responders who do not develop PTSD, consistent exposure to stress can create uncomfortable physical and mental symptoms. The effects of stress may build over time.
Both PTSD and chronic stress can increase a person’s risk for substance abuse, as some people use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate or escape from their symptoms.
Injuries and Chronic Pain
Many first responders deal with chronic pain from job-related injuries, and their doctors may prescribe opioids for relief. While opioids do work well for pain, they are not designed for long-term use, as they can cause addiction.
First responders face the possibility of long-term or even permanent injuries. Using opioids to treat this long-term pain may create a physical dependence on these drugs, which may, in turn, lead to substance abuse and addiction.
Wakefulness and Rest
In addition to experiencing chronic stress, first responders must stay alert for long periods of time. When first responders are on the job, even when not responding to an emergency, they must always be prepared for the possibility of disaster.
As a result of these constant “high alert” feelings, first responders may struggle to fully relax, even when not on the job. While the logical side of the brain understands when work is over, the nervous system may remain alert, unable to let its guard down for rest or sleep.
As a result of this alertness, some first responders may turn to drugs or alcohol to help them relax.
Furthermore, because they are often expected to work long shifts, first responders may have a high risk for stimulant abuse. Studies have found links between amphetamine abuse and long working hours, especially when those long hours include a lot of physical labor. Some people use stimulants as a way to stay awake and focused during their shifts, and many develop addictions as a result.
Mental Health Stigma
Although first responders face several mental health concerns, they also deal with stigma surrounding mental illness. When surveyed, many first responders have expressed fear that seeking mental healthcare could have a negative impact on their jobs.
For mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, that stigma may lead people to abuse alcohol or illicit drugs instead of getting treatment. Much like with PTSD, first responders may use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for other mental health symptoms.
Addiction in particular carries a strong stigma, even outside of first responder workplace culture. As a result, many first responders may avoid seeking help for substance abuse.
Drug availability is one of many risk factors for addiction. Those who have easy access to drugs are more likely to show signs of substance abuse. Many first responders come into contact with drugs on a regular basis.
Police officers, for example, may confiscate illicit drugs while on the job, or they may find drugs in evidence storage spaces. Meanwhile, EMTs and other medical personnel have easy access to prescription medication.
How to Handle Addiction as a First Responder
If you’re a first responder who deals with addiction, finding treatment is the most important thing you can do for your health. Because your job focuses on helping others, you may struggle to seek help for yourself. Remember, however, that the healthier you are, the more effective you’ll be on the job.
Some treatment centers have programs specifically for first responders, and many programs treat PTSD and other mental health concerns alongside addiction. Start by talking to your doctor about your concerns, or search for treatment centers in your area.