Why First Responders Are Facing an Addiction Crisis

First responders are professionals who provide a lifeline to us when we are faced with life-threatening injuries or a serious event, such as a school shooting. Because first responders are under a great deal of stress in their jobs, they also may need a lifeline of their own, for a substance use disorder (SUD).

First responders, such as police, emergency medical personnel, and firefighters, are routinely thrust into emergency situations that are stressful. Many situations require them to deal with upsetting events, such as witnessing death and trauma.  To cope with the emotions generated, the first responders often will self-medicate.

First responders often don’t receive adequate training to compensate for the mental and behavioral stress.  Often their work environment is overwhelmed by the demands they are responding to, and the supervision of their well-being is inadequate.

Why Addiction Becomes a Way to Cope

When an emergency responder is overwhelmed by the workload or the graphic nature of their occupation, he or she may drink or use another drug to minimize the anxiety caused. Alternatively, the first responder may abuse stimulants to cope with the workload.

Let’s look at some facts that have led to an addiction crisis among emergency first responders in the field:

First responders are responding to more emergency calls. The calls first responders receive have tripled in the last three decades. For instance, research shows that U.S. fire departments respond to emergency calls every 24 seconds.

Fires do not burn as slowly as they did in the past. Environmental and manufacturing factors have led to fires that more quickly rage out of control and produce an abundance of smoke (about 200 times the smoke than was created in the past). The result is more danger to first responders and more civilian injuries for the medical personnel to tend to.

The Increasing Number of 9-1-1 Calls. Paramedic and EMT shortages continue in all parts of the country. However, calls for 9-1-1 assistance continue to increase. The EMT training period has been reduced because of the urgent need for more technicians, and the emphasis of training is preparing to tackle life-threatening situations, not on self-care.

Mental Health Disorders Experienced by First Responders

There are many well-known mental health disorders that first responders experience, including:

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Numerous studies confirm that first responders suffer from PTSD at much higher rates than other professions. For example, around 16.8% of emergency doctors in Germany had PTSD, according to a study conducted in 2012.

Depression. Depression is frequent among first responders. For example, depression was reported in 6.8% of licensed EMS providers in a case-controlled study.  Clinical depression was reported in 21.4%  of medical team members who responded to the Great East Japan earthquake in 2011.

Suicidal Ideation. Researchers discovered that 37 percent of fire and EMS employees had considered suicide, which is nearly ten times the national average (in 2015). Furthermore, 6.6 percent of firefighters and EMS personnel admitted to attempting suicide, compared to only 0.5 percent of civilians.

Substance Abuse and Addiction Among First Responders

To cope with the above pressures and symptoms, first responders have abused alcohol and other substances.  It is often part of the culture to binge drink together after assignments.  Some will continue on their own when “the party’s over.”

Injuries are also common amongst first responders, and the prescribing of painkillers provides another gateway to substance abuse. The prescription addiction epidemic that is gripping our nation is partially fueled by those who were legally prescribed medication and became mentally and physically dependent on its euphoric effects.

Getting Help

First responders are faced with increasing responsibilities and obligations that can weigh heavily on them in their line of work. It’s important for first responders to look out for their own well-being and that of their coworkers so they can seek the necessary intervention if help is needed.

Fortunately, mental health awareness is at an all-time high, and the stigma of needing help is being reduced.  Every first responder workplace will have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides help with issues like drug or alcohol abuse. If you know of someone who is dealing with a substance abuse problem and needs help, encourage them to seek the help of their EAP.

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman has been facilitating interventions and helping men and women recover from addiction for almost 40 years. He is the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient rehab in San Diego