Getting Help as a First Responder
First responders are the people who arrive at the scene first in the event of a tragedy. This term includes police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and all other disaster response personnel. Many of us take these people for granted, knowing that they will arrive to help us when needed. However, many of them pay a silent price for their services. Unfortunately, jobs that involve a lot of stress have been known to drive people toward drugs, alcohol, and other addictions.
Statistics About Drug and Alcohol Abuse Among First Responders
There is an alarmingly high rate of drug and alcohol abuse among first responders, putting them at greater risk than many other groups of professionals. It makes sense that people who have to deal with traumatic situations on a daily basis would need some sort of coping mechanism. All too often, though, a substance use disorder becomes that coping mechanism.
EMTs and Paramedics
A study published by the National Library of Medicine examined the occupational risk factors associated with EMT/paramedic work. Rather than gathering a bunch of test subjects, researchers conducted a systematic review of the studies that have already been done. The results are quite startling.
Roughly 80-100% of all EMTs and paramedics reported that they were exposed to highly traumatic events, which is not surprising. A job like that would make it impossible to avoid the uglier side of life, but many people also develop some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rates of PTSD among first responders are upward of 20%, according to this data.
More importantly, the study found that up to 40% of EMTs and paramedics reported problems with drugs and alcohol. It should be noted that the study did not specify the degree of each individual’s drug problem. Nevertheless, the data proves that there is a causative link between stressful jobs and substance use disorders.
There are other studies which confirm this link, such as this one from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. These researchers came to similar conclusions, but they examined several other factors. First of all, there is the fact that EMTs must be on call 24 hours a day. This leads to all kinds of sleep disorders, which only compound the stress of the job further.
Law Enforcement Professionals
When it comes to law enforcement professionals like police officers, the subject of drug and alcohol addiction is a sensitive one. After all, police officers are expected to maintain a certain standard of dignity and to avoid breaking the law.
This study from the American Journal of Police used a methodology that was quite simple as they just picked one particular police department at random and surveyed its members anonymously. There are several interesting takeaways from this research.
For one thing, the study found that most of the officers who reported issues with drugs or alcohol had “exemplary performance records.” This is not what most people would expect, but it shows that even the best police officer can feel the need to forget things. Like a first responder, these individuals deal with traumatic situations every day, and it is quite natural to seek relief from that trauma.
The study also found that there was a high incidence of drug and/or alcohol use among police officers in the sample department. This department may or may not represent the average state of affairs, however, so another source would be helpful.
This study was conducted in 2011 on the subject; this one focused more on the alcohol problem. Alcohol use is more common than drugs in this group.
The alcohol-related study used similar methods, utilizing anonymous reporting to get a sense of the general trends. However, this project involved three different police departments instead of one. Thus, it is likely to be a better representation of the problem.
What we see is a 20-25% rate of heavy alcohol use among police officers. Of these, about 15-18% would meet the criteria for alcoholism. Female officers seem to have a slightly lower rate, but the difference isn’t that large. By contrast, researchers found only about 10% of police officers with drug issues. Thus, we can see that alcohol is a more appealing option for law enforcement members, if only because it is legal and readily available. This study also cited another project from Australia, which puts the rate of alcoholism among their police officers at roughly 48%. These numbers demonstrate the likelihood of officers beginning a substance use disorder.
Firefighters are another group of first responders who can easily become victims of a substance use disorder. It takes a special kind of person to run into a burning building, and it seems that those types of people are more vulnerable to the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
This study of firefighters focused on the mental health of these individuals, examining a wide range of issues from sleep deprivation to depression to anxiety because substance use tends to be correlated with these factors. In fact, the study found that firefighters are at much higher risk for some of these factors.
The most important takeaway from this study was that about 58% of all firefighters reported problems with binge drinking. This is an alarmingly high number and represents the second-highest percentage of all the problems examined. For instance, only 11% of firefighters reported problems with depression, and only 5% reported problems with caffeine overuse.
However, 59% of the firefighters surveyed in this study reported issues with sleep deprivation. Since the numbers on binge drinking and sleep deprivation are nearly identical, we should examine this connection more closely.
To find the reason for this problem, consider this study, from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. This one may have solved the mystery, showing that rotating schedules were probably to blame. In most cases, firefighters will work on a 24/48-hour cycle. In practice, this means that they work for 24 hours and then receive 48 hours off work. Such a schedule creates a situation in which firefighters are constantly fighting to correct their unnatural sleep schedules, often leading to substance use to help combat sleepless days/nights.
In many cases, military members have witnessed things that were far more traumatic than anything you would see at the average hospital. As with other disaster response personnel, we can see that veterans have a significantly higher rate of substance use disorders than the general population. This study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, comes to a very interesting conclusion.
These researchers looked at a group of Vietnam veterans, but the subjects were separated into two groups: those who were involved in combat, and those who were not. It was generally assumed that combat veterans would have higher rates of substance use, but this was not the case.
Instead, researchers found that both combat and non-combat veterans exhibited problems with substance use. Of course, it should be noted that this study was limited to those who were already seeking care for drug/alcohol problems. However, by looking more closely at these individuals seeking help, researchers concluded that PTSD (not combat) was the causative factor. They found that veterans who reported PTSD were also far more likely to develop substance use disorders.
This study, published by the American Psychological Association, came to similar conclusions, adding a little more weight to the argument. Like in previous projects, the researchers found a clear and consistent link between PTSD and substance issues. However, they differed from the researchers in the previous study because they did connect the experience of combat to the onset of PTSD.
The Effects of PTSD
As you can probably see, we keep coming back to the same theme over and over. That theme is post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. It seems to be the one common thread that ties all of this research together, so it’s important to find out what it is and how it affects people.
It is important to understand the difference between normal trauma and PTSD. When someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, it is perfectly natural that they will be upset. However, most people get over these emotions with time. They may not forget, but the mental impact doesn’t last forever.
PTSD is another story. This is the kind of trauma that never goes away and which can thus destroy a person’s entire life. The effects of PTSD are many and varied, but they commonly include depression, flashbacks, nightmares, violent reactions, the inability to communicate properly, and a certain detachment from emotion.
The trouble with these symptoms is the fact that most of them are experienced internally and cannot be verified with hard scientific data. That being said, the effects of PTSD are very, very real. In addition, many people turn to substances such as drugs and alcohol to cover or to get over their traumas or symptoms of PTSD. When these substances stop working as well, sufferers take more and more of these substances to mask their pain until they are facing a substance use disorder in addition to PTSD. We would strongly urge you to seek treatment before things get to that point.
How to Get Help
There are many places in which a person can receive the help that they need to overcome addiction. The Green Mountain Treatment Center is one such place. At Green Mountain, we offer the finest and most advanced treatment out there, doing our best to ensure that you can get over your addiction and move on with your life. Green Mountain Treatment Center specializes in the treatment of first responders and has helped many people with PTSD move on with their lives.
If you have a substance use problem, don’t wait until it gets out of control. If you do this, there is no telling how bad the consequences could be. Instead, give us a call today, and ask us about how we can help you turn your life around. Our comprehensive PTSD treatment program has shown positive results for our many satisfied clients.