First responders don’t simply respond to emergencies—they put their lives on the line—each and every day. If we look to our recent past, we can see the toll the energy, time, and emotion a scenario like COVID-19 places on these brave and heroic individuals. While studies related specifically to COVID-19 and its impacts on first responders are fairly new and ongoing, much of what we know so far shows that some frontline health care workers are experiencing adverse effects.
In China, for example, where the longevity of the pandemic has been slightly longer than in the United States, research shows that healthcare workers have the highest rate of poor sleep, with individuals aged 35 years and younger experiencing higher rates of mood and anxiety symptoms. Additionally, of the more than 7,000 health care workers surveyed 20% exhibited depressive symptoms and 18.2% had poor sleep quality. Similar data has been collected from other areas of the world to—from the United Kingdom, India, and Singapore, as examples.
Here, stateside, the Kaiser Family Foundation KFF, released findings from a poll conducted in mid-April 2020 that revealed a host of negative impacts from the pandemic on first responders. Sleeping and eating problems; increased substance and alcohol use, and worsening mental health symptoms and well-being are some of the issues first responders are facing.
But, the pandemic is simply one of many examples of how first responders are impacted by their jobs. As we mentioned, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), police officers, nurses, doctors, firefighters, and military personnel face trauma and disaster daily.
As the loved one of a first responder, you may wonder how you can help. First and foremost, it’s important for you to know that you are not alone. Many family members and friends of first responders have experienced the side effects that result from mental health challenges and substance abuse.
At Futures Recovery Healthcare, we understand the unique and dynamic issues first responders must navigate in their daily lives. Our Hero’s Ascent First Responders program is specifically dedicated to mental health and adversity that can come with being a first responder.
Why Are First Responders at Higher Risk of Mental Illness and Substance Use?
Unlike someone who works from nine to five each day, leaving the cares of their job behind when a shift is over, first responders must contend with unusual, ever-changing, and demanding circumstances. Their work exposes them to physical danger, in addition to:
- Witnessing death
- Observing grief
- Experiencing injury (themselves or seeing others injured)
- Seeing others in pain
- Enduring long work hours
- Having to work back-to-back shifts
- Undergoing sleeping and eating challenges
These types of exposures and hardships don’t only affect the first responder (as you well know as a friend or family member); they also impact family dynamics, relationships, economic well being, and social interaction.
As a result of the factors listed above (and additional stressors), EMTs, firefighters, police officers, and other frontline workers are at higher risk of developing behavioral and mental health conditions such as depression and PTSD, as well as substance abuse disorders (SUDs.) In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 30% of first responders develop depression, PTSD, and other associated mental health conditions compared with 20% of the general population.
An additional concern among first responder populations is a higher rate of suicidal ideation (having suicidal thoughts.) In SAMHSA’s 2016 report, it was estimated that between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide each year. An additional study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), revealed that firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, and EMS workers are 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide (than the general public).
How Can You Tell if a First Responder Is in Need of Help?
While some symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression may seem obvious, others may be more subtle. And, for first responders who must consistently navigate extraneous circumstances and events—often without rest or reprieve—the symptoms of certain mental illnesses and substance abuse may manifest in slightly different ways.
Take a look a look at symptoms that may indicate a first responder is experiencing one or more mental health and/or substance abuse disorder:
- Flashbacks of traumatizing events and situations
- Avoidance of places and scenarios that remind the person of a past traumatic event
- Elevated temper
- Easily startled
- Feeling disconnected or having “out of body” type of experiences
- Extreme fear of places or situations
- Obsessive thoughts
- Sleeping problems
- Erratic eating patterns
- Feeling restless or nervous
- Muscle twitches
- Rapid heart rate (or sensation of a rapid heartbeat)
- Extreme fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling guilty or hopeless
- Lack of enthusiasm and interest in activities
- Suicidal thoughts
Substance Abuse (drugs and alcohol)
- Using drugs or alcohol before or during work
- Needing more of a drug or alcoholic drink to get drunk
- Having horrible hangovers or physical effects when stopping substance use
- Getting in trouble at work for drinking- or drug-use-related behaviors
- Avoiding family and friends
- Reacting negatively when a friend or family member discusses the possibility of a drinking or drug problem
- Facing legal repercussions from driving under the influence or stealing (as examples)
- Demonstrating erratic behaviors and moods
- Continuing to drink or use substances in spite of negative consequences (losing a job, relationship, etc.)
How Can You Best Support a First Responder in Need of Help?
Some of the biggest challenges in helping first responders get the help they need for mental health and substance abuse disorders have largely been a lack of understanding. According to the CDC, evidence-based interventions for first responders are few, as are programs designed specifically to address their mental health and substance abuse needs. Added to this challenge is a lack of training or comprehension of first responder culture on part of health providers.
If and when a first responder seeks help for mental health or substance use, only to discover that a provider or program is not prepared to address their needs, they may shut down or refuse further (or future) help.
In addition, because of the weight of their responsibility and societal roles, first responders can feel that seeking help for mental health and substance use reflects weakness. That’s why one method of intervention—peer-to-peer counseling—has been particularly helpful for first responders.
Other initiatives are actively being researched and implemented by various agencies and organizations to improve education and awareness on suicide prevention among first responders, which include the:
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC)
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in cooperation with the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS)
- U.S. House and Senate’s Helping Emergency Responders Overcome (HERO) Act
Together, these government entities, alongside private groups and organizations, are working to overcome the disparities and barriers preventing first responders from receiving the support and resources they need and deserve.
As the friend or family member of a first responder, there are ways you can support your loved one too. These include:
- Refrain from asking a first responder questions like, “What is the worst thing you have ever witnessed?” Or, “What’s the worst injury you’ve ever seen?” These questions are intrusive and can be triggering, reigniting traumatic feelings.
- Let your loved one know you care and are available to provide support. Did you know that one study revealed that only 24.6% of first responders reported feeling like others would care about their struggles? Simply communicating to a first responder family member or friend that you are available to listen and provide help in any way, goes a long way.
- Donate your time and resources. If you are able to, donate a meal, massage, or another type of service that promotes self-care to a first responder. Or, see if there are opportunities to volunteer or advocate for first responders in your community.
- Spread awareness about the challenges that first responders face. You can be an advocate for your loved one by sharing what you have learned about the increased mental illness and substance abuse risks first responders face.
Above all, it’s important to remember that you and the first responder you care for are not alone. Millions of first responders and the people they love face adversity each and every day. But, there is hope and help.
At Futures Recovery Healthcare, our Hero’s Ascent First Responder’s program addresses a wide range of mental health disorders from depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and personality disorders to bipolar and other related disorders. Our compassionate, non-judgemental experts are highly skilled and trained in clinical, medical, and psychiatric interventions.
Hero’s Ascent is tailor-made for males and females 18 and over struggling with mental health disorders, providing resources and support systems specifically designed for first responders.
If you or your loved one are ready to get help and begin a life in peace and joy, Futures is here to help. Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098