By Joseph Hunter M.A.
First responders endanger their lives to be of service to others, but in doing so, they are often at risk of misusing alcohol and drugs. To begin with, what is a first responder? They are trained professionals who arrive first at the scene of an emergency.
While we are driving, we might hear sirens, and pull over to the right side of the street to let ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars zoom by. Inside those vehicles are first responders, en route to a critical situation. When such an event occurs, there is no time to spare. These courageous men and women must get to the scene of the emergency as fast as possible. Imagine the stress that they are in, knowing that the lives of civilians depend on them!
While they bear the immense responsibility of saving lives, at times, they might be too late. Sometimes death has already occurred, as in the case of a reported homicide.
Besides law enforcement, other first responders include paramedics and firefighters, combat veterans, park rangers, corrections officers, emergency medical technicians (EMT’s), dispatchers and other rescue workers.
While these brave men and women are highly trained to deal with horrifying events, they are still human beings with emotions. Because of their work, some experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma, and other co-occurring disorders, so they resort to misusing and/or drinking to camouflage their distress.
When veterans return home from combat operations, they carry deep and dark wounds within. Sometimes they go into shock, and feel cut off from the rest of “normal society.” That’s when PTSD, often followed by substance abuse, develops or worsens.
PTSD symptoms include recurring nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive, upsetting memories, stemming from their experiences while overseas.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans who have been affected by PTSD include 31% of those who served in Vietnam, 10% of the military that served in Desert Storm, 20% of Iraqi war veterans, and 11% of veterans from the war in Afghanistan.
Once afflicted with PTSD, war veterans are privy to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations. Reliving a horrifying memory can cause panic attacks and intense depression.
According to a 2015 Vanity Fair article on PTSD and the military, many soldiers reported that seeing other people die, including the enemy is one of the more traumatic events that they have ever experienced in their lives.
Outliving the incident, while others die, is called survivor’s guilt, which is a feeling that other first responders are privy to experiencing, especially if they were not able to save those whose lives were in danger, or if they are confronted with a homicide that occurred after they were alerted of a posing danger to life.
Resorting to the misuse of drugs, alcohol and tobacco provides temporary relief, until substance addiction sets in.
For first responders, admitting that they have been traumatized by their experiences can be taken as a sign of weakness, and some are at risk for losing their badges or jobs by disclosing that they need help.
And their fears are not far from the truth.
According to a 45th Space Wing News article, illicit drug use among active military personnel remains at a low level, most likely because of the military’s zero tolerance policy towards drug use. Random drug testing is often conducted among active military personnel to ensure that this strict policy remains in effect.
Discovery leads to humiliation, and a dishonorable discharge.
However, while abuse of illicit drugs remains at a low, abuse of prescription drugs is greater among service members than among the public and it’s getting worse.
Additionally, the work of a first responder is physically hazardous, and when harmed on the job, painkillers are often prescribed. Once the injured individuals realize that their painkiller provides temporary relief for their emotional, as well as physical pain, an opiate addiction is right around the corner.
Another huge issue that first responders face is alienation from society.
According to the Killology Research Group, law enforcement and solders are part of a subculture, where civilians are known as sheep. Criminals, and the enemy are the wolves. And the police, and veterans are sheep dogs that protect the sheep from the wolves.
While this is a great metaphor, one notices the invisible wall that divides these “warriors” from the rest of society.
When it comes to substance misuse, first responders require clinical, evidence-based treatment for their co-occurring disorders. Additionally, peer support is crucial in healing feelings of loneliness and despair. It’s important for licensed professionals who work with first responders to have the experience and compassion that is required.
At Cycles of Change Recovery Services First Responder Program, we are sensitive to the needs of the brave men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis in order to be of service to civilians in danger. We offer the specialized treatment that you require. Our culturally competent clinical team will provide you with an individualized treatment plan that will help you recover from the damages of substance misuse, as well as mental health issues like PTSD, trauma, anxiety, depression and stress.
Our evidence-based modalities include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a problem focused and goal directed therapy, behavior modification counseling, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), motivational interviewing, which implements change in high-risk lifestyle behaviors, and bio-sound therapy which focuses on helping clients with trauma.
Learning relaxation techniques can help first responders control stress, as well as the onset of panic. We offer meditation and yoga to help clients get grounded, alleviate stress and feel inner peace.
Additionally, many first responders experience shame, and regret. At Cycles of Change, our clients find inner serenity by connecting to a Higher Power of their understanding. Our workshops allow clients to make peace with their pasts, remove feelings of guilt, learn how to live in the moment and feel hope for the future, knowing that recovery will provide their lives with new meaning, and fortify them with a strength that comes from working the steps.
We offer critical incident stress management (CSIM), which caters to the needs of first responders, as well as safety sensitive clients.
While based in Palmdale, California, we maintain a satellite facility in Las Vegas, Nevada, which provides comprehensive assessments, and transportation to one of our gorgeous Antelope Valley facilities.
We believe that the brave men and women who do so much for our community, and our country require compassionate, comprehensive and professional care.
We look forward to your call and to serve you through our First Responder Program
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