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First Responders, Drug Abuse, and How to Find a Treatment Program

Firefighters, paramedics, and law enforcement officers are saviors during emergencies and frightening situations. Yet, many people tend to forget that these first responders witness and experience the same traumas as us when they’re coming to our rescue. 

First responders who face these types of situations regularly often remain at higher risk for chronic stress and trauma, making them highly vulnerable to drug abuse and addiction. Here’s a closer look at the relationship between first responders and substance use disorders and how to find a treatment program that specializes in helping these individuals.

How Does Drug Addiction Affect First Responders?

According to a May 2018 report published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), rates of substance misuse and addiction tend to be especially high among firefighters and police officers compared with the general population.

Among male firefighters, an estimated 50% admit to having engaged in heavy drinking or binge drinking during the past month. Another 9% admit to driving while intoxicated.

Female firefighters make up approximately 5.1% of the firefighter population. In another study shared with SAMHSA, researchers found that nearly 61% of these women drank more than one alcoholic beverage a day as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Additionally, nearly 40% of female firefighters admitted to binge drinking regularly compared with the 12% to 15% of females in the general population, and 4.3% of female firefighters surveyed reported driving while intoxicated.

SAMHSA’s report mentions another study in which alcohol misuse was observed in police officers involved with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. According to the study, these police officers increased their drinking from two drinks a day to seven drinks a day.

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Which Conditions Are Common for First Responders?

Mental illness is a major risk factor for addiction and substance use disorders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that about half of people with a mental illness will also experience a substance use disorder at some point in their lives, and vice versa. The NIDA also confirms that some mental health disorders have been identified as risk factors for developing a substance use disorder.

Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are among the top mental health conditions commonly experienced by first responders.

In a study that examined the mental health status of paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), an estimated 6.8% were diagnosed with depression. Another study mentioned that PTSD affects an estimated 16.8% of EMTs, per SAMHSA.

Roughly 69% of firefighters in the United States are volunteers. Volunteer firefighters suffer from higher rates of depression (16.85%) than career firefighters (13.06%). Researchers attribute this to the fact that volunteer firefighters tend to face higher stress levels due to also managing their primary jobs.

Police officers also face especially high rates of depression and PTSD that put them at risk for substance use disorders. SAMHSA says that after the events of 9/11, depression affected 24.7% of police officers. An estimated 47.7% of officers were affected by depression and anxiety, while 11% to 13% were affected by PTSD.

Suicide and suicidal ideation are the greatest health risks associated with depression and PTSD. According to SAMHSA, paramedics and EMTs are more likely to think about suicide and attempt suicide compared with the general population. 

Research shows that first responders who work as both EMTs and firefighters are six times more likely to attempt suicide than those with just firefighting responsibilities. Other research shows that between 125 and 300 police officers die from suicide every year.

What Makes First Responders Vulnerable to Addiction?

First responders are usually the first people to arrive on the scene of dangerous situations. They are also often the first people who speak with disaster survivors and others caught in the middle of those same dangerous situations. This exposes first responders to more traumatic situations that put them at greater risk for substance abuse and mental health problems.

First responders, especially police officers and firefighters, are also subject to certain hazards in the line of duty that put them at risk for death, injuries, and pain. They frequently get exposed to situations that threaten their safety and well-being and often work long hours that rob them of quality sleep and time with their families and loved ones. 

Many first responders do not have enough time to recover between one traumatic event and the next, increasing their risk for chronic stress, depression, PTSD, and addiction.

How Can First Responders Reduce the Risk for Addiction?

There’s no doubt that the responsibilities of a first responder are incredibly demanding. Working as a firefighter, law enforcement officer, or EMT will often be stressful and difficult, but the key to reducing your risk for addiction is finding a healthy work-life balance and effective ways to cope.

Get Rehab Help

If you are a first responder misusing alcohol or illegal drugs or who experiences symptoms of a mental disorder, get help right away. There are many treatment programs and support groups designed for first responders.

Learn Risk Signs

Invest time in educating yourself about the signs of substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders and get help when you think you are on the verge of developing a serious problem. Many times, it helps to be aware of the signs and symptoms of addiction so you can make changes to your lifestyle as needed to reduce your risk.

Develop Coping Skills

Find healthy coping methods that don’t involve drugs and alcohol. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and taking a warm bath are some of the many effective coping methods people may use to relax. Leave work behind you the moment you clock out. Develop healthy interests outside of work that allow you to relax, unwind, and de-stress.

Start exercising regularly. Exercise naturally regulates your hormones and brain chemistry to reduce your risk for mental illness. It also releases endorphins that combat stress, reduce pain, and make you feel better.

Find New Interests

Join a club, group, or other programs that align with your favorite hobbies and interests. If you enjoy reading, join a monthly book club. If you enjoy hiking or bird-watching, join groups that go on weekly outings to nearby trails. Passionate about helping animals? join a cat or dog rescue group that allows you to catch strays so they can be adopted by loving families.

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Share Quality Time

Your friends and family members are usually your biggest fans and make up the best support group you could ever have. Focus on spending quality time with your loved ones when you’re not at work. 

This can often help put things in perspective and remind you why you became a firefighter, EMT, or police officer in the first place. Plus, your friends and relatives can often cheer you up and distract you from the traumas and demands related to your work life.

What are the Best Addiction Treatments for First Responders?

First responders who seek addiction treatment at quality healthcare facilities and rehab centers will often receive customized treatment plans. This means they receive specialized therapies that cater specifically to the first responder population and work with professionals who understand the unique challenges this population faces regarding mental health and substance misuse.

A typical rehab program for a first responder will include drug and alcohol detox, behavioral therapy, and one or more support groups. All treatments are evidence-based and proven effective at helping first responders experience long-term recovery from addiction.

Detox is the first stage of treatment and helps manage the acute physical symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal. This treatment can last between two days and several weeks, depending on the substances misused. Drug and alcohol detox may involve medications that reduce your symptoms and complications. Or, if you were misusing prescription drugs like benzodiazepines, detox may involve a tapering method that gradually tapers you off those drugs.

After detox, you will transition into a rehab program to receive behavioral therapy for addiction. Support groups will also be included in your treatment plan. Many treatment centers have support groups exclusive to first responders suffering from addiction and a mental illness. Separating first responders from other patients can also often reduce the tension that may exist between police officers and those who have been charged with criminal drug-related offenses.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and family therapy are other evidence-based therapies often included in a treatment program for first responders.

Where Can First Responders Get Substance Abuse Treatment?

First responders who suffer from addiction should look for a rehab center and treatment facilities that cater to their population as well as their addiction (such as alcohol, drugs, or behavioral compulsions). 

Whether the treatment services and health care are personal and custom should be one of the first questions you ask when researching your treatment options. Finding a facility and support services specializing in addiction treatment for first responders can help you achieve the best results and long-term recovery.

The Haven Detox offers specialized treatment programs for police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders. We offer detox and residential rehab programs that can help you successfully recover from drug and alcohol dependence, addiction, and mental health disorders. 

Contact us to learn more about our programs and start treatment today.

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