The month of May marks several dates honoring first responders. For all the sacrifices they make, the dedication they exhibit, and their acts of selflessness, first responders deserve more than one day a month. After all, these brave firefighters, police officers, military personnel, and emergency medical service (EMS) professionals (to name a few) are typically the first on the scene of many harrowing and even dangerous scenarios. Their exposure to human loss, pain, injury, grief, and other direct exposure to threats, combined with long work hours, frequent shifts, lack of sleep, and physical demands place tremendous stress on first responders.
To help honor the vigilance and commitment of first responders, it’s important to recognize the toll that their profession can take on their minds and bodies. According to research, approximately 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Of paramount concern, suicidal ideation is higher among first responders. It’s been reported, for example, that between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide every year.
In addition to being more susceptible to behavioral and mental health issues, first responders are also at higher risk of developing substance use disorders (SUDs). One study comprised of firefighters revealed that 4% admitted to consuming upwards of 42 alcoholic drinks per week. In another study that tracked alcohol use in police officers after Hurricane Katrina, the average number of alcoholic drinks increased from two to seven drinks per day.
At Futures Recovery Healthcare, we understand the unique challenges first responders face in and out of recovery. For this very reason, we have created a program designed to address the specific substance use and mental health challenges that can come with being a first responder.
Find out more about how you can honor and support the first responders in your life!
Why Are First Responders at a Higher Risk of Developing SUDs and Mental Illness?
We briefly touched upon some of the scenarios that are unique to people in professions like law enforcement, firefighting, and EMS: long hours, exposure to trauma, and more. But, how do these variables in particular, manifest into SUDs or mental illness? One of the core issues that studies have identified as a contributing risk factor is the pace of work in which first responders must navigate.
In one study, 69% of EMS workers reported never having enough time to recover between traumatic events. The result: A higher probability of experiencing depression, stress, PTSD symptoms, and suicidal ideation.
To help better understand the gravity of the effects of persisting through an occupation that continuously exposes one to traumatic events and situations, think about first responders’ work through COVID-19. Not only have first responders been repeatedly put in front of people who are ill, dying, and have passed away, they have also had to filter the emotions and behaviors of family members and friends, combined with few to no breaks, and no time to process their own reactions and feelings.
Additionally, it’s likely many first responders have had dual responsibilities during the pandemic. Meaning, that in addition to having COVID-19-related duties, emergency events and scenarios are simultaneously requiring their attention. Essentially, they have limited mental, emotional, and physical downtime because of these complex scenarios.
How Do You Know When a First Responder is at Risk for SUD or Mental Illness?
There are certain behaviors and symptoms that indicate that a first responder is experiencing stress, anxiety, fear, and other emotions that may increase the opportunity of developing a mental or behavior disorder, which include:
- Exhibiting irritation and anger.
- Demonstrating uncertainty and anxiety.
- Feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and powerless.
- Experiencing lack of motivation.
- Having difficulty sleeping.
- Showing problems concentrating and focusing.
- Feeling tired and burned out.
- Exhibiting avoidance of “triggering” places, people, and situations.
- Expressing heightened mood swings, emotions, and behaviors.
The following signs and symptoms can demonstrate that a person may have or be at risk of a substance abuse disorder:
- Exhibiting changes in mood and behavior.
- Having to use substances—drugs or alcohol—routinely (including several times a day).
- Using more and more of a drug of choice.
- Continuing to use drugs or alcohol despite negative outcomes.
- Focusing on acquiring more drugs or alcohol.
- Taking drugs and drinking alcohol before or during work.
- Showing erratic behavior at work, putting oneself or others in danger.
- Experiencing withdrawal when discontinuing drug or alcohol use.
How Can First Responders Get Support?
Global disasters and traumatic events—COVID-19 as a prime example—have actually helped bring further awareness of the effects of trauma and stress upon first responders. Studies continue to measure and monitor the emotional and behavioral impacts that these brave emergency workers face. And, with each study and evidence-based research that emerges, the better the scientific and medical communities can devise prevention strategies to reduce the risk of SUDs and mental health disorders.
Internally, first responder departments are helping implement steps and strategies to better honor and help their workers to boost morale, such as:
- Team-building activities (fitness challenges, training sessions) that encourage collaboration and support among workers.
- Providing meals for first responders and supporting staff.
- Ensuring that first responders clearly understand the priorities of their agency so extra energy isn’t expended on less time-sensitive tasks and initiatives.
- Offering initiatives such as hazard pay or increase in overtime pay to help first responders feel valued and appropriately compensated for their work.
When First Responders Can Benefit From Treatment
Because first responders are at a higher risk of developing a mental health disorder, substance abuse disorder, and co-occurring disorders (having both a SUD and mental health disorder), a time may come when they need professional help and guidance. Many EMS workers, police officers, firefighters, military personnel, and other first responders benefit from integrated treatment plans. These types of treatment pathways help address a myriad of mental health and SUD needs unique to first responders.
Supports and services such as detoxification (if needed for SUD), individual and group therapy, medication, and more can help first responders to:
- Form tools and resources to help manage feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, stressed, vulnerable, and more.
- Strengthen relationships and support systems.
- Promote activities and interests outside of work that encourage relaxation and enjoyment.
- Identify substance use triggers and create strategies to avoid relapse.
- Establish healthy coping mechanisms and solutions.
Support the First Responders in Your Life
Even if you don’t have a first responder family member or friend, they’re all around you! You can help support police officers, firefighters, EMS professionals, and other types of first responders in a number of ways. For example, you can:
- Pay for a meal (or meals) for first responders that you see when you’re out to breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
- Ask if your local fire station, police department, or hospital has any volunteer opportunities.
- Find out if any local first responder organizations have any charitable causes (5K or 10K marathons or walks, for example).
- Inquire if you can make donations to any first responder support funds.
- Send letters and cards to your local community first responders expressing your gratitude and admiration for their service and sacrifice.
- Mark your calendar for May 13-19 for “National Police Week.” And, May 20-26 for “EMS Week.” These dedicated time slots often include events and ways to express recognition of your local police departments and EMS professionals. Do a web search to see if anything is arranged within your community for these first responders and how you may become involved.
- Keep reading, researching, and educating yourself on the challenges and needs of first responders and how you can advocate for them.
- Wear a ribbon or memento symbolizing first-responder awareness (blue for police, red and black for firefighters, etc.).
And, if you do happen to have a first responder in your life who you are concerned may have—or be at risk of—a SUD or mental health disorder, you can help them too. Approach your friend or family member in a humble, compassionate manner to let them know you care and are available to help them.
Remind the first responder in your life that they are not alone! First responders can often feel that to admit they have a mental health or substance use problem is an admission of weakness—but, nothing could be further than the truth! Millions of first responders have found healing and success in recovery for SUD and mental illness, going on to live fulfilling, happy lives.
Futures Recovery Healthcare Hero’s Ascent First Responder’s program offers a safe and non-judgmental environment for males and females 18 and over struggling with mental health disorders. Here, we address Depressive Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Personality Disorders, Bipolar and Related Disorders by using clinical, medical and psychiatric interventions, and support. Our interdisciplinary team approach allows patients to receive holistic services and care.
Hero’s Ascent is tailor-made to provide resources and support systems for first responders. Our goal is to help develop and establish a journey of healing and a life worth living.
If you are ready to get help and begin a life in peace and joy, Futures is here for you. Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098