First Responders and Substance Abuse - ARISE Treatment Center

Substance Abuse and Addiction Among First Responders

First responders work laborious, dangerous jobs in order to protect American citizens. They are often the first people to encounter threatening situations ranging from violence and terrorist attacks to natural disasters and house fires. Firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, and dispatchers alike endure a lot of stress, anxiety, and trauma due to the nature of their work.

First responders play a key role in community safety, but the high emotions associated with these careers come with unfortunate consequences. Many emergency responders turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with symptoms of stress, trauma, and anxiety as well as the pressures associated with their careers. As a result, there are extremely high rates of substance abuse and addiction among first responders.

Who is Considered a First Responder?

Any career where individuals are on the front line of emergency calls or potential emergency events qualifies as a first responder. First responders are tasked with keeping families and citizens safe from harm. Examples of first responders include:

  • Paramedics or EMS/EMTs
  • Police officers
  • Firefighters
  • Security guards
  • FBI agents
  • Sheriffs
  • Dispatchers
  • Lifeguards
  • Red Cross
  • Marshals
  • TSA officers
  • Military service members

When faced with emotionally challenging circumstances, first responders are expected to put on a brave face, maintain their composure, and do their job. Unfortunately, these pressures, along with the trauma that comes with the nature of these professions, often lead to drug abuse and addiction.

Understanding Substance Abuse and Addiction Among First Responders

Many first responders start using drugs and alcohol to alleviate stress and other mental health symptoms that are associated with conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 46.4% of people with PTSD also have a substance use disorder (SUD) at some point in their lives. And, extensive studies prove that first responders are at a substantially increased risk of PTSD due to the nature of their work.

First responders often deal with death, loss, violence, crime, and serious injury–all of which can be extremely difficult to cope with and heavy on the psyche.

Many first responders have trouble reconciling their own emotions after traumatic events. Despite all their efforts to help, most first responders have experienced death firsthand, and feel as though there was something else they could have done to save a person’s life. This substantial burden and constant guilt can become too difficult to bear for many, leading to drug and alcohol abuse.

Firefighters and Paramedics

Firefighters and paramedics are the first to arrive at life-threatening scenes like fires, severe injury, and potentially fatal health problems. These individuals are tasked with saving lives–a role that can take a heavy toll.

Approximately 37% of firefighters and 10% of paramedics experience PTSD, increasing the risk of substance use disorder among professionals in this career. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly 29% of firefighters abuse alcohol and 10% abuse prescription drugs.

firefighters and substance abuse

Police Officers, Dispatchers, and Sheriffs

No matter the crime or disaster, dispatchers, police officers, and sheriffs are almost always involved. They often put their own lives on the line to stop violent crime, and they experience a lot of firsthand violence.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 35% of police officers and 24% of dispatchers suffer from PTSD. Estimates show that roughly 25% of police officers struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, but actual numbers may be higher. Up to 37% of police officers are heavy drinkers.

Military Service Members

Military service members often struggle with PTSD as well as making the adjustment to living back at home after combat. This causes many of them to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, ultimately leading to an addiction.

More than one in every 10 veterans has a substance use disorder, although these numbers may be higher depending on the nature of one’s deployment. Among Vietnam veterans with PTSD, about 74% of them also had a comorbid substance use disorder.

Frequently Abused Substances Among First Responders

There are concerning rates of substance abuse and addiction among first responders, but some substances are abused more than others. The most popular substances of abuse by first responders are:

  • Alcohol – Alcohol is legal and easy to get, so it is easy for people to turn to for symptom relief. Many police officers, firefighters, and EMTs report that they have been encouraged to drink alcohol with their coworkers to fit in. However, alcohol is highly addictive and can cause an array of health problems. It can also be dangerous to the general public if a first responder is abusing alcohol because it can impair their ability to do their job of protecting the community.
  • Prescription opioids – Many first responders have jobs that are physically demanding and associated with a high risk of injury. When injured, people can get prescribed opioids for pain relief. First responders who abuse prescription opioid painkillers may develop an addiction to these drugs. Also, first responders may be more likely to take opioids for longer periods of time as they begin to rely on the drugs to be able to do their job without being in pain.
  • Benzodiazepines – Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin are often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Panic attacks are a common symptom of PTSD, so it is not uncommon for first responders to get prescribed or abuse benzodiazepines to reduce their anxiety symptoms.
  • Stimulants – Both prescription stimulants like Adderall and illicit stimulants like cocaine may be abused by first responders. Due to the long, demanding shifts they work and the need to be focused, attentive, and quick-thinking, first responders may be tempted to abuse stimulant drugs. Stimulants increase energy, focus, and concentration.

Whether a police officer is driving a vehicle while under the influence or a paramedic is providing life-saving care to individuals while intoxicated by drugs, substance abuse among first responders puts the community and first responders themselves at risk.

Barriers to Addiction Treatment for First Responders

Sadly, many first responders are hesitant to get treatment. This is because there is a stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse in the workplace–especially when it comes to workplaces that deal with public safety. People may be afraid of losing their jobs or being disciplined at work. People who hold important positions or titles, such as Marshals or military officers, may be afraid of what the public will think of them.

While fear of losing one’s job is a legitimate concern, there are laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) that can protect the rights and privacy of first responders seeking addiction treatment.

addiction treatment for first responders

Dual Diagnosis Addiction Treatment for First Responders

Maintaining optimum mental and physical wellness is an important part of being successful on the job for all first responders. While constant exposure to trauma, life-altering events, and chronic stress can lead to mental health conditions or substance use disorders, dual diagnosis addiction treatment centers can provide first responders with the comprehensive care they need to recover.

Treatment includes the basics, such as medically-assisted detox, group and individual therapy, family counseling, and relapse prevention. However, rehab for first responders also aims to address the unique needs of individuals in these careers. As a result, treatment may include:

  • Trauma-informed care
  • Trauma and PTSD therapy
  • Stress management
  • Pain management
  • Holistic treatments (massage, acupuncture, yoga, breathing exercises, and more)
  • Exercise therapy or physical therapy
  • Integrated mental health and addiction counseling
  • 12-Step programs

Studies show that some of the most effective treatments for first responders struggling with PTSD and addiction include:

Early diagnosis and treatment are key to helping treat PTSD, mental illness, and substance use disorders in first responders. Speak with a compassionate admissions coordinator at Arise Treatment Center today to learn about your treatment options.

Find Drug and Alcohol Rehab for First Responders Today

Our mission at ARISE Treatment Center is to help individuals overcome addiction-related issues by providing the highest quality of services that lead to physical, mental, and spiritual healing. Through our comprehensive clinical approach to recovery, we will work alongside you to develop a unique treatment plan that is catered to meet your needs. Contact us today to speak with a team member and get started.


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