Updated on 07/03/23

Content reviewed by Nicholas G. Glines

First-responders are individuals with specialized training who arrive as quickly as possible at the scene of an emergency to provide assistance and support to others. Some well-known first responders include police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics.

As these individuals often face challenging and even dangerous circumstances during their careers, they are a population of individuals that is especially vulnerable to the development of mental health and substance use disorders. For effective and lasting recovery from these conditions, first-responders need to receive care from a treatment program that uses trauma-informed care.

Co-Occurring Disorders in First Responders

“Behavioral health disorder” is an all-encompassing term that recognizes both mental health disorders and substance use disorders. First responders tend to experience a wide range of mental, emotional and behavioral health consequences as they endure a host of work-related exposures to traumatic events and disasters. Some examples of work-related exposures first responders endure include:

  • Death, both indirectly or directly
  • Grief
  • Injury
  • Threats to personal safety
  • Long, strenuous work hours
  • Frequent shifts
  • Longer shifts
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Physically taxing demands

Several behavioral health disorders tend to be common among first-responders. These conditions include:

When a mental health disorder and substance use disorder occur simultaneously, it is known as co-occurring disorders. First-responders are a vulnerable population that often develops co-occurring disorders. First-responders may develop a SUD as they attempt to self-medicate already present mental health disorders or associated symptoms.

Risk Factors for Co-Occurring Disorders in First Responders

There are several unique risk factors that first responders are exposed to that make them more vulnerable to the development of mental health disorders and SUDs such as addiction. Some of these risk factors include:

1. Pace of Work

First responders are always working quickly to ensure that they are meeting the urgent needs of the community they serve. They constantly face stressful and time-sensitive calls. A mental health disorder and SUD may develop as first responders are unable to process their work experiences or because they have an inadequate amount of time between traumatic events to fully recover from one before moving on to another.

2. Experiencing Personal Traumatic Events

Another risk factor for first-responders includes inadequate recovery from personal traumatic life events before a work disaster or emergency. To no one’s surprise, first-responders still have personal lives outside of their taxing jobs. They likely process their own grief, pain and other trauma differently, and more intensely, than how they deal with these emotions during their jobs. When these personal emotions are not worked through properly, they increase the risk of post-disaster mental health issues.

3. Barriers to Seeking Help

Unfortunately, there is still stigma attached to seeking help and treatment for mental health and SUDs. This stigma is even harsher for first-responders, as they are acknowledged as being strong, courageous and capable. First-responders often find themselves stuck as they balance the pressures of their career with their own behavioral health.

What Is Trauma-Informed Care?

Trauma-informed care, also known as trauma-focused care, involves both organizational and clinical practices that recognize the complex and severe impact that trauma has on an individual. While some healthcare facilities train staff on trauma-specific treatment approaches, many facilities neglect to implement necessary changes across their treatment regimen to appropriately address trauma. Trauma-informed care, then, recognizes the impact of trauma, addresses the impact and instills changes in the treatment facility’s program to transform a given treatment setting.

The Core Principles of Trauma-Informed Care

There are several core principles of trauma-informed care approaches. These principles include:

  • Patient empowerment: Involves using patients’ strengths to motivate and empower them during treatment
  • Choice: Involves informing patients of available treatment interventions so they have the option to choose a specific treatment if they prefer
  • Collaboration: Involves maximizing collaboration between staff, patients and their families during treatment planning
  • Safety: Involves developing environments and activities that prioritize patients’ physical and emotional safety at all times
  • Trustworthiness: Involves developing clear expectations with patients about treatment goals, how those goals will be met and future steps to take

Why Is Trauma-Informed Care Valuable for First-Responders?

As mentioned previously, first-responders endure a wide range of physical, mental and emotional challenges in the course of their careers. Because of the stigma that exists against both mental health disorders and treatment, many first-responders may develop problematic coping mechanisms to navigate their distress. Many turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate. Since the development of these issues is so complex, trauma-informed care can shed light on compassion, safety and encouragement that can motivate first responders to achieve and maintain lifelong recovery.

For treatment to be effective, it must address all issues simultaneously. For example, if a first-responder is struggling with co-occurring disorders of depression and substance use, these conditions must be treated and addressed at the same time. Using a trauma-informed lens, treatment providers can help the individual discover that the underlying causes of these conditions might stem from unresolved trauma. Similarly, once these traumas are worked through, first-responders can effectively heal from their behavioral health conditions through the use of healthier coping mechanisms.

New Hope Ranch is a men’s-only addiction treatment center that offers a specialized treatment program for first-responders. We understand that first-responders require trauma-focused and personalized care as they are tasked with saving lives and creating order in chaotic situations. We can help you recover from your substance use and co-occurring conditions. To learn more about our treatment programs, call us today at (737) 600-8565.