First responders, also known as public safety professionals, are classified as police officers, firefighters, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and paramedics. Substance use disorders (SUDs) in public safety professionals are more prevalent due to the nature of their work and the mental and physical strain it puts on them and their well-being.

A study proved that approximately 25% of first responders suffer from substance use disorders such as alcohol use disorder (AUD), illegal drug use, and prescription drug abuse. The rate of alcoholism in first responders is twice as high as the average population.

First Responders and Substance Abuse

The correlation between substance abuse and first responders is prevalent, considering their daily job responsibilities. While prioritizing others’ lives and safety above their own can often add a lot of pressure and strain to their personal lives. Such significant responsibilities might cause first responders to look to alcohol or drugs for a “break” or “relief” from their daily lives. Substances are so commonly abused because they can supply users looking to cope with personal or work-related stress with a temporary escape.

Being consumed with and surrounded by grief regularly can become destructive and ultimately crippling, leading first responders to unintentionally numb their emotional suffering or attempt to forget through addictive behaviors. A first responder who engages in unhealthy coping mechanisms cannot process trauma or stress positively or effectively.

Unfortunately, requesting professional support is still viewed as a weakness within such professions, often turning people away from receiving the help they need. It can be difficult to properly close and heal an open wound, such as an addiction, when attempting self-treatment. Addiction treatment for first responders caters to substance abuse and common mental health disorders associated with the profession. This is known as dual diagnosis treatment.

Co-Occurring Disorders in First Responders

Dual diagnosis, most known as “co-occurring disorders,” is when someone simultaneously struggles with a substance use disorder (SUD) and a mental health disorder. Considering the nature of their work, it is prevalent for first responders to suffer from acute stress and trauma.

In a 2017 survey, Samantha Dutton, Ph.D., LCSW, Associate Dean at the University of Phoenix, stated that “This high percentage of first responders experiencing traumatic events in their jobs makes it especially important to provide them access to mental health services, such as screenings and treatment programs, and for their employers to encourage workers to seek help if needed,” says Dutton, “It is also essential that providers help first responders learn how to address the stress that comes from experiences they encounter on the job to reduce chances of worsening mental health.”

Co-occurring disorders in first responders are treated via addiction treatment programs. Addiction specialists take precautions when treating first responders due to the frequency of trauma, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How to Take Care of Your Mental Health as a First Responder

When a substance use disorder (SUD) and mental illness coexist together, it is crucial that they are both professionally treated and monitored by healthcare professionals. Often, first responders battle with stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, suicide, or suicidal ideation.

With constant exposure to human-caused or natural disasters, first responders encounter grief, pain, loss, and death indirectly and directly daily. For someone whose profession is to be solid and accountable for others, it’s easy to put on a face and play a role without allowing yourself to feel and handle your own emotions.

Self-awareness is crucial for everyone, regardless of profession. Being aware of your emotions and identifying how to manage them is beneficial for you, your health, and those around you. Public safety professionals are constantly putting forth care and compassion, and they must be tending to their own mental and physical health just the same.

In addiction treatment for first responders, addiction specialists are professionally trained to care for individuals with substance use disorders and those with co-occurring conditions. Battling addiction can significantly affect your mental health, making the detox and recovery process even more strenuous.

Treatment for First Responders

Once you’ve recognized and accepted the need for treatment, the next step is to find the treatment facility and program best suited for you and your situation. There are addiction treatment programs catered to first responders specifically to provide them with the most authentic experience.

Admitting oneself to treatment can be stressful in and of itself, but to do it alone is something no one should ever have to do. Building a support network, whether that be family, friends, or others in the recovery community, is critical for maintaining long-term recovery. Resources for first responders are provided for those in need of extra support and as a reminder that you are not alone.

Resources for First Responders

Opening up about your mental and emotional struggles can be unnerving, causing many people to feel uncomfortable sharing with close peers. Online chat groups, hotlines, or in-person support groups are constructive alternatives accessible to all public safety professionals.

Some mental health resources for first responders are:

  • The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, and CISM Perspectives’ provides online support and care for healthcare workers and emergency responders.
  • Safe Call Now is a 24-hour emergency hotline staffed with former and current first responders that offer guidance and support for all public safety professionals and their family members.
  • Hope for Emergency Responders Organization (HERO) is a warmline that offers peer support for first responders, as well as family and friends of first responders.
  • All Clear Foundation offers several different forms of resources for public safety professionals. Responder Rel8, for example, is a confidential app that authorizes communication between all first responders, allowing them the ability and privilege to offer or receive guidance from their peers.

When first responders prioritize their mental, physical, and emotional wellness through treatment and care, it will benefit their quality of life and every person they come in contact with on and off the job.