First Responders and Substance Use: How to Help Those Who Help Us

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By: SUPE Editorial Team

First responders, including police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics, face some of the most challenging emergency situations in any field. These individuals are not immune to the effects of a demanding work environment. There is a fast-changing nature of duties such as long shifts, and the intensity level of severe crisis requires these individuals to be physically and mentally mindful and prepared at all times.

However, the job can take a toll, and countless first responders struggle with substance use.

How to Help Those Who Help Us

It is critical to give attention to the emotional and psychological impact of witnessing severe human distress daily. Evidence has shown that significant numbers of first responders develop symptoms of addiction, stress, and co-occurring disorders. It is critical to recognize these issues.

Recognize the Significant Stress of the Job

These individuals work in high-stress situations and see things that create emotional trauma. Shift work, long hours, and demanding responsibility create stress. The symptoms of stress can include the following:

  • Headaches, anxiety, and overeating.
  • Muscle tension, restlessness, and angry outbursts.
  • Chest pain, lack of motivation or focus, and drug or alcohol misuse.
  • Fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, tobacco use.
  • Stomach upset, sadness, and exercising less.

Recognize the Signs Substance Use Disorders

Someone affected by a substance use disorder has a problem with drugs, mind-altering medications, and or alcohol. The common symptoms of a substance use disorder include the following:

  • Feelings to use the drug or alcohol regularly.
  • Taking larger amounts of the drug to get the same effect.
  • Not meeting obligations or work responsibilities.
  • Failing in attempts to stop taking the drug or alcohol.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Recognize First Responders’ Difficulty in Asking for Help

First responders struggling with a substance use disorder find it difficult to admit what is happening and ask for help. The factors that create this situation include the following:

  • The attempt to maintain an appearance of professional invulnerability.
  • The desire to maintain confidentiality.
  • Fear of not measuring up to expectations.
  • Fear of cultural stigma.
  • Fear of experiencing workplace repercussions.

Seek Specialized Substance Use Treatment

Help is available to first responders who develop a substance use disorder. A specialized program would address co-occurring disorders. Generally, this is within an inpatient or residential setting. Outpatient programs can also be effective, depending on addiction severity.

There is the significant importance of peers in recovery. A first responder in recovery can be a vital voice heard among those fearful of asking for help. First responders in recovery can validate feelings of shame or personal disappointment and relate to the problems at hand.

Additionally, there are often dedicated Employee Assistance Programs for first responders. Healthcare benefits are specifically designed to help someone deal with the stresses of challenging positions.

Test Your Knowledge

First Responders and Substance Use

First responders always ask for help when struggling with a substance use disorder.

The common symptoms of a substance use disorder may include the following:

Shift work, long hours, and demanding responsibility do not create any stress.

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