Content reviewed by Anthony T. Triola, Executive Director at New Hope Ranch

A first responder arrives on the scene of an accident or disaster before anybody. The experiences they go through can be mentally and physically tolling; because of this, many first responders develop substance use disorders (SUD) to cope with stress, anxiety, depression and PTSD. Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between first responders, SUD and the pressure that may keep them from getting help.

First Responders and Substance Use

First responders can include firefighters, paramedics, police, military personal and emergency medical technicians. Often, the images they encounter in their day-to-day can lead to various forms of trauma, including PTSD, acute stress, and other co-occurring disorders. Their constant exposure to potentially life-threatening situations and the physical strain of working can also increase the risk of substance use to self-medicate from the stressors that come with their careers.

Dealing with substance use addiction can be difficult for first responders because they are the primary point of help for others. Therefore, admitting that they need help can become a challenge. There is also a culture within their field that suggests that they have a responsibility to uphold a feeling of invincibility and admitting that they need help will make them seem unfit for the job. Additionally, other stigma surrounding mental health might cause a first responder to feel as though they are “weak”.

Prevalence of Substance Use Among First Responders

Typically alcohol is the substance used most by first responders. There is also a general relationship between stressful occupations and other substance use disorders. While a high number of first responders use substances, they also have a unique perspective on substance use. Their day-to-day might require them to see other people dealing with a substance use disorder. Therefore, they will witness substance use effects on other family members, such as a spouse or child.

Their jobs are also physically demanding and carry the risk of injury that could result in needing pain killers. While they see the effects of drugs and other substances first hand, nobody is immune to the effects of developing dependency.

First Responders and Mental Health Disorders 

Due to their work environments, first responders are also at an increased risk for developing mental health disorders. While there are helpful resources for a first responder, they might not take advantage of them. According to a study, almost 85 percent of first responders experience symptoms related to mental health issues. Of those, only 34 percent receive a formal diagnosis.

However, someone who experiences symptoms related to mental health disorders must find help. Studies show that the impact of PTSD and other mental health disorders, combined with an increased risk of alcohol, can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.

Compassion Fatigue 

Compassion fatigue is the result of seeing, hearing, or sympathizing with first-hand trauma experiences. Symptoms of compassion also mimic those of PTSD. First responders may become highly susceptible to experiencing compassion fatigue.

They may encounter changes in:

  • Memory and perception
  • Alterations in their sense of self-efficacy
  • Deletion of personal resources
  • A disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust and independence

They might also appear indifferent to others.

Feeling Burned Out

Burnout is often the feeling of emotional exhaustion and reduced feelings of accomplishment. While also work-related, burnout develops due to occupational stress. Sometimes first responders view burnout and compassion fatigue as interchangeable. However, they are not the same. Compassion fatigue is an indicator that larger issues are present and not being dealt with appropriately.

While everybody might experience burnout differently, some common signs include:

  • Feeling of fatigue
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feelings of frustration
  • Depression
  • Using substances to cope with feelings

Challenges Seeking Help

Stigma is likely what prevents many first responders from getting help. Some believe that seeking help while on the job could have negative consequences.

Some of these consequences include:

  • Supervisors treating them differently
  • Being perceived as “weak” by co-workers
  • Limiting their potential for a promotion

In a recent poll, 50 percent of respondents believed that their supervisor would view them differently if they were to get help for a mental or substance use disorder. However, 42 percent believed that their supervisor would be open to discussing their mental health needs.

Getting Treatment

Ultimately, a team environment is essential, especially when it comes to being a first responder. First responders need the security in knowing that they can count on their co-workers. Therefore, cultivating a healthy work environment will continue to educate and motivate individuals to act to get help when they need it. Such support will help individuals in the field talk more openly about their mental health and substance use issues.

There are various benefits first responders have access to for getting treatment for a substance use or mental health disorder. Ignoring what you are going through will only perpetuate stress and anxiety. At New Hope Ranch, we offer specialized and confidential treatment for first responders. Our resources to care will help you find support from peers that share experiences. With us, you will never feel alone. The relationships that you form here will last long after treatment. We also provide resources to find a 12-step program in Texas to allow you the opportunity to continue to develop a strong network and growth in recovery. If you need to talk to somebody about a mental health or substance use disorder, reach out to us today. We offer support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so there is never a wrong time to reach out. To find out more, contact us by calling (512) 566-3050