First responders are the emergency workers who show up during people’s difficult moments to manage emergencies and start the chain of survival. Unfortunately, it’s a stressful job, and emergency workers’ substance abuse numbers prove it. Firefighters, police officers and ambulance crews have higher rates of suicide and suicidal thoughts than the general public, and they’re more likely to develop substance use disorders and suffer from anxiety and depression than society at large.
Getting help in time is key to addressing these issues, and while recent years have seen some improvement in how first responder organizations care for their crews, mental health and substance abuse are still largely taboo subjects in these at-risk communities.
Understanding the Unique Needs of the First Responder Community
First responders deal with trauma daily, which puts them at special risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a serious mental health issue that’s commonly seen in people escaping violent and abusive relationships, soldiers returning from war and a distressingly large number of police officers, firefighters, and EMTs/paramedics. PTSD is often a factor in substance abuse, and acutely traumatic events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, seem to drive an upswing in substance abuse and other destructive outcomes.
As bad as these issues can be for the people dealing with them, it gets worse when they have to shoulder the burden alone. There’s a common perception among emergency workers that talking about their problems will potentially make things worse, or that disclosing a mental health issue could wind up costing them their careers. Law enforcement officers, for instance, reasonably fear that expressing suicidal thoughts could get them relieved of duty on a job where they have to carry a gun. Paramedics with addiction disorders often conceal their use out of fear their access to controlled substances may be restricted. A chilling atmosphere of secrecy and shame has thus developed that leaves many first responders feeling they have nowhere to turn and nobody can help them out of their troubles.
Resources for First Responders
The perception that first responders will face ostracism and official punishment for mental health issues and substance abuse is far less accurate today than it was in the past. These days, most first responder organizations have some type of employee assistance program that offers anonymous, free mental health services for first responders and referrals for drug and alcohol treatment. The community itself has also gotten better about recognizing mental health issues as real and treating them as problems to be solved rather than sins to be punished. As a result of these changes in attitude, several first responder mental health resources have started to treat rescuers who need help.
The first place to turn might actually be the chain of command itself. As a rule, watch commanders are experienced first responders themselves, and they presumably understand the stress of the job. One common intervention is the critical incident stress debriefing, in which rescuers who’ve recently had an especially difficult experience can come together and discuss the call in a structured environment without judgment or criticism. The hope is that these semi-official get-togethers can reduce the strain that develops into PTSD and improve mental health overall for the entire team.
Outside sources also exist to help first responders get through rough patches.
- Healing Our Own, for example, is a firefighters’ referral service to free mental health resources for first responders that includes a suicide hotline, a mental health crisis line, local and regional help centers and information about stress and depression from a fire/rescue workers’ perspective.
- Responder Strong is a self-help app supported by the All Clear Foundation. It’s able to assess first responders’ relative risk of stress from graded responses to professionally written survey questions. First responders who take the quiz may learn they’re at an elevated risk of a stress-related mental health or substance abuse issue and get referrals to local treatment.
Outside of the community, first responders have access to all the same resources the general public does. Alcoholics Anonymous, along with other 12-step programs, offers anonymous peer support and helps participants overcome trauma. Primary care doctors and personal therapists are usually able to help their patients locate treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues as well.
Calling for Backup
No matter what job you do or how it’s started to affect you, you have to know you’re not alone. If you’re a first responder yourself, society is generally grateful for the work you do and wants to help you get better. The Mental Health Hotline operates a nationwide service that’s here 24-7 to assist you with compassionate, unbiased advice and referrals to help. Contact us today and let someone help you for a change.