By Sandy Baker
The men and women who work as first responders are no doubt heroes to those they save. Yet the nature of their work–the intensity, the trauma, the constant need to be at their best–puts them at a high risk for developing mental health issues. Untreated, these can lead to the use of drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate and cope.
It’s estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. Only about 20 percent of the general population develops these conditions, as noted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Why First Responders Are So at Risk
If you work as a first responder, your job may be to help people in dire situations. As such, you may:
- Face physically challenging situations
- Experience emotionally draining situations
- Get involved in dangerous situations
- See intensely graphic and traumatic scenes
- Deal with deadly and devastating outcomes
All of this puts you at risk of experiencing trauma. Even with some counseling from in-house providers, the stress from the job can be intense and ongoing. Without the proper tools and support to manage this stress and trauma, a person may turn to substances like drugs and alcohol to control it.
After a long day, it may seem like an act of self-care to stop for a drink to unwind or just let go of what happened during the shift. But using substances to deal with stress puts you at risk for addiction and dependence. You will start to use alcohol and/or drugs more and more often to stop the negative thoughts and images from occurring.
The Risks to First Responders with Addiction
There is profound risk when a person who works as a police officer, firefighter, or emergency medical service provider struggles with substance use and addiction. These risks may include:
- Being unable to perform the job due to slowed reaction times
- Putting other people at risk from their intoxication
- Being more likely to be involved in accidents on the job, including some that may be life-changing or deadly
What to Do When You’re Using Drugs & Alcohol as a First Responder
First, it is critical to access the right tools and resources to help you stop using. With your medical training, you know that many drugs can cause dependence. When that happens, it’s nearly impossible to stop using. You may be driven to look for more potent drugs, use medications meant for patients, or drink more consistently, even on the job. If this is happening to you, or if you feel withdrawal symptoms and cravings when you try to stop using, it’s time to seek help.
The Ranch at Dove Tree offers a comprehensive First Responder Support Service. It’s an opportunity to get the care and attention you need, especially as you’ve put so much time and effort into helping your community. This program recognizes the mental health challenges for people who work as first responders and is structured to meet their unique needs.
Seeking help is a critical first step. As a first responder, you’re used to helping others but maybe less comfortable with helping yourself. Maybe you think that seeking help is a sign of weakness. Or maybe you’re not sure your situation warrants help.
We Are Here to Help
The program at The Ranch at Dove Tree offers numerous opportunities for you. They include:
- A trauma-informed environment, where care is based on what you’ve experienced
- Treatment designed to meet your specific needs
- EMDR therapy sessions held at least twice a week to help you move beyond your trauma
- Opportunities for participating in equine therapy, yoga, and other recreational therapies
- Group therapy sessions designed to help you get the support you need
You may be able to get back to your job when you invest in yourself first. Our goal is to provide you with care and treatment for your addiction and mental health needs now. Then, we will continue to support you over time through our alumni programs and other resources.
Take a moment to ask yourself if you are at your best right now. Are you using substances to help you get through the day or deal with emotional pain? Are you hoping to minimize the risk of developing addiction? If so, our team is ready to help you.