First Responders Dealing with Mental Health & Addiction – Treatment

By Nick Roshdieh – First Responder & Family Wellness

First responders experience daily stress and trauma, which can increase their chances of developing an addiction or mental health disorder. Even with the specialty training they receive, the constant exposure to horrible images of destruction, fire, injuries, violence and death can take its toll.

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.

Often, the images and situations they encounter during their day-to-day jobs can lead to an array of trauma related disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder and other co-occurring disorders.

Symptoms of PTSD

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.

Prevalence Of Addiction Among Firefighters And First Responders

Resorting to 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.

According to the Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida, P.A., approximately nine percent of first responders reported heavy alcohol use (five or more days of binge drinking) within the past month,

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.

Signs of Addiction and Mental Health Issues in First Responders

There are various ways to tell if someone is struggling with addiction or mental health issues. Both physical, outward signals and more subtle psychological symptoms may help in identifying if someone is in trouble.

Possible Alcohol and Substance Abuse Indicators Include:

  • slurred speech or  stuttering
  • appearing lethargic or falling asleep randomly
  • has trouble maintaining eye contact
  • struggling to recall specific details
  • experiencing lapses in memory or complete blackout of events
  • has dilated or constricted pupils that do not change when exposed to light
  • tremors, shaking or twitching of hands and eyelids
  • difficulty concentrating, focusing or completing a task
  • hyperactivity or appearing overly energetic
  • impaired coordination
  • appearing distracted or disoriented
  • needing direction constantly
  • extreme mood swings
  • struggling to make decisions
  • appearing fearful or anxious or having panic attacks
  • increasingly angry or defiant
  • needing assistance with basic tasks like filling out paperwork
  • being impatient, irritated or highly irritable

While the first responders are more likely to abuse alcohol, prescription drug abuse is also a major issue among firefighters and first responders. Due to the physical demands of their jobs, it is common for first responders to obtain prescriptions for addictive painkillers. There is also an increased availability for first responders to access medications on the course of their duties or on-the-scene.

Treatment for First Responders

When it comes to substance addiction, first responders require clinical, evidence-based treatment for their substance abuse, and 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.

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. Our addiction center for first responders offers the specialized treatment that you require. Our clinical team will provide you with an individualized treatment plan that will help you recover from the damages of substance abuse, as well as mental health issues like PTSD, trauma, and stress.

Therapy Methods for PTSD Treatment

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.

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

Safe Call Now:  24 Hour Confidential Hotline:  206-459-3020

For more information on the First Responders program:  Click here

Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008