Firefighters and first responders experience daily stress and trauma, which can increase their chances of developing an addiction or mental health disorder. Even with the specialty training they receive, the constant exposure to horrible images of destruction, fire, injuries, violence, and death can take its toll. This may lead to the need for a firefighters and first responders addiction treatment program.
First responders can include firefighters, paramedics, police, active duty military, corrections officers, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and other rescue workers. Often, the images and situations they encounter during their day-to-day jobs can lead to an array of trauma-related disorders. The constant exposure to potentially life-threatening situations, trauma, and the physical strain of working long hours with little sleep, can increase the risk of substance use and addiction as first responders may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Dealing with addiction and mental health issues can be difficult for firefighters and first responders because it can be difficult to admit there is a problem. However, finding treatment can greatly benefit these individuals. To learn about the benefits of our addiction treatment for first responders, contact Vertava Health today at 888.601.8693.
Prevalence of Addiction and Mental Illness Among Firefighters and First Responders
Although research is limited on drug or alcohol addiction among firefighters and first responders, some studies reflect that it is an issue. Typically, alcohol is the primary substance misused by first responders. However, there is a general relationship between stress, stressful occupations, and other substance use disorders.
First responders have a unique perspective on addiction. Their jobs may require them to see the same people who are struggling with addiction, over and over, and witness the effects addiction has on bystanders such as children and the elderly.
Their jobs are often physically-demanding and carry the risk of injury that may require opioid painkiller prescriptions. Though they see the effects these drugs can have firsthand, no one is physically immune to the dependence that opioid drugs can create.
Due to the nature of their jobs, firefighters and first responders are at an increased risk of developing mental health disorders. A national survey from the University of Phoenix found mental health challenges are common among first responders, and even though helpful resources are generally available, they are not often used.
The data indicate that the impact of PTSD and other mental health disorders, combined with an increased risk of alcohol use, can lead to a ten-fold increased risk for suicide. In fact, research suggests that a fire department is three times more likely to experience a suicide among its staff than a line-of-duty death.
Signs of Addiction and Mental Health Issues in Firefighters and First Responders
There are various ways to tell if someone is struggling with addiction or mental health issues. Both external physical signals and more subtle psychological symptoms may help identify if someone is in trouble.
Possible alcohol and substance use indicators include:
This list is by no means comprehensive. If you are concerned that you or someone you love could be experiencing symptoms due to substance use, it may be worth reaching out to a professional to get help.
Mental Health Concerns Affecting Firefighters and First Responders
First responders and firefighters are considered a high-risk occupation group. They can experience a wide range of physical and mental health consequences as a result of doing their job.
Secondary traumatic stress can be an emotional response to the duties of a first responder. Secondary traumatic stress refers to the presence of PTSD symptoms caused by at least one indirect exposure to traumatic material. Some signs of secondary traumatic stress may include:
- Fear in situations that others would not find frightening
- Excessive worrying that something terrible is going to happen to yourself, loved ones, or colleagues
- Easily startled, feeling jumpy, or on guard all the time
- Wary of every situation, expecting a traumatic outcome
- Physical signs like a racing heart, shortness of breath, and increased tension headaches
- Sense of being haunted by the troubles you see and hear from others and not being able to make them go away
- The feeling that others’ trauma is yours
Other terms used to describe elements involved in secondary traumatic stress include compassion fatigue, burnout, and vicarious trauma. However, they are not all interchangeable.
Compassion fatigue results from hearing, seeing or sympathizing with the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Symptoms of compassion fatigue often mimic those of PTSD. Those experiencing compassion fatigue may encounter symptoms such as:
- Changes in memory and perception
- Alterations in their sense of self-efficacy
- Deleting personal resources
- Disruptions in their perception of safety, trust, and independence.
- They may also appear indifferent to the troubles of others.
Burnout involves emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment. While also work-related, burnout develops due to general or occupational stress. Typically, this term is not used to describe the effects of indirect trauma exposure specifically.
Sometimes, people use burnout and compassion fatigue interchangeably. However, they are not the same. Compassion fatigue is a more severe indication that larger problems are present and are not being dealt with appropriately.
Although every individual will express burnout differently, some common signs and symptoms can include the following:
- Feeling as if nothing you can do will help
- Tiredness, exhaustion, and overwhelmed
- Feeling like a failure or as though you are not doing your job well
- Disconnecting from others, lacking feelings, indifference
- Feeling as if you need to use alcohol or other mind-altering substances to cope
Vicarious trauma is a rare trauma condition that occurs when secondary trauma is not addressed. When the feelings associated with secondary trauma are experienced for a long time, a person can become so distressed that the way they view the world changes for the worse.
Why Is It So Important to Find Firefighters and First Responders Addiction Treatment
Compassion fatigue seems to be a growing epidemic among first responders. More news stories report on the lack of compassion that first responders feel towards calls for things like opioid overdoses. One EMT reported that he remembers feeling the hair on the back of his neck go up each time he’d respond to a call for opioid overdose. But, now, it has become so commonplace that it no longer happens.
Due to the interaction first responders have with addiction, it can be hard not to internalize the scenes they take in daily. These situations do impact their overall well-being and, without proper treatment, can lead to severe consequences.
Willingness to be first on the scene in many terrible situations is one of the things that make first responders seem trustworthy to survivors. Often, this means that as a first responder you are in the same environment that the people who need your help are in, and at times this can be tough.
As a first responder, there is potential to struggle with lack of privacy, disruptions during sleep, hectic work schedules, and other various factors that affect overall physical health. It is also possible, over time, to become more vulnerable to feeling the acute traumatic stress, sorrow, and anger of the people you help.
At times, some first responders can feel guilty for having survived the disaster, and when this happens, it can become difficult for them to understand risks to their own health and safety.
Self-Care Tips for First Responders And Firefighters
It is common for firefighters and first responders to be trained in screening survivors for negative behavioral health effects. Currently, the field is also focusing on identifying survivor resilience, fostering strengths, and encouraging self-care. Just as they assist survivors in this process, they can also apply it to themselves.
By focusing on building strengths and carrying out self-care activities, first responders can positively contribute to their behavioral, cognitive, physical, spiritual, and emotional resilience. These strategies include:
- Get enough sleep or at least rest.
- Get enough fluids to stay hydrated and eat the best quality foods you can.
- Complete basic hygiene tasks like combing your hair, brushing your teeth, and changing your clothes. Wearing clean clothes can make you feel better.
- Try to wash up when you leave work, even if it is just your hands and face. Think of it as a way to wash away the difficulties of the day.
- Make time to learn about the people you work with. Taking time for conversations will help in developing positive feelings towards yourself and others.
- Take time to be alone so you can reflect and rest.
- Practice your spiritual beliefs or reach out to a faith leader for support.
When three or more of the above self-care practices are combined, they can help prevent compassion fatigue. Once they become a part of your routine, then you will have an overall prevention plan. Not only do these healthy habits strengthen the ability to cope while you’re in the moment, but they can also help your body remember how to bounce back to a healthier state.
Seek Firefighters and First Responders Addiction Treatment at Vertava Health
There are various benefits first responders can receive from formal treatment for addiction and mental health disorders. Ignoring what you’re going through can cause an increase in stress levels, allowing the problem to grow and become more challenging to treat.
Specialized and confidential treatment for first responders does exist, and it can help in a handful of ways. Treatment can help you understand that you are not alone and that trauma is a normal human response to abnormal situations. At Vertava Health, our addiction treatment for first responders can give you the tools that you need to help. Learn more about dealing with addiction and mental health today by calling 888.601.8693 or using our convenient online form.