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Would First Responders Benefit From Specialized Addiction Treatment?

We say all the time that addiction is not an issue of moral fiber or personal strength, and first responders are a perfect example of that. Police officers, firefighters, and medical personnel that act as first responders are unquestioned heroes, whose strength, valor and bravery save lives every single day. Yet even these heroes can fall victim to substance abuse and addiction, the same as any other person. Like most diseases, being brave or tough doesn’t make you any less likely to suffer from it. In a 2015 study of firefighters and alcohol, 85 percent of career firefighters reported that they had had at least one drink of alcohol in the past month. On average, they drink 10 days per month, and about half of those surveyed reporting at least one instance of binge drinking in the past month. Those are significantly higher percentages than the corresponding percentages in the general public. In 2013, 63 percent of males reported consuming alcohol in the last month; a 2010 study showed that only 23 percent reported binge drinking – less than half the percentage of firefighters who said the same. So clearly substance use and even abuse is a problem in these first responders. Obviously, not all of those firefighters are addicted, but it’s safe to assume a fair number of them need help. With that in mind, it’s worth asking…

Why is Drinking Such a Problem in First Responders?

People often turn to drugs or alcohol in response to stress. That can take the form of something as simple as having a drink “to wind down” after a long day at work. Often it seems innocent and harmless, and in moderation, it probably is. But that being said, first responders have a lot more stress to deal with in their lives than the average office worker. They often have to deal with issues like:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • loss of friends and loved ones
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • chronic pain from injuries sustained on the job

And while a lot of these are common to any job with stress, there is no doubt that first responders have them to a much greater degree. In 2014, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation found that suicide is three times more likely to claim the life of a firefighter than a death in the line of duty. The reality is firefighters confront death every day in a way that would traumatize most people after just a light brush with it. They confront the deaths of victims, of the loved ones they work with everyday. Every time they get a call, they face the reality that they may not come home. For those who have death or injuries on the job, post-traumatic stress disorder is a very real concern. That’s a steep emotional and mental price to pay for being a hero, and many firefighters and other first responders pay part of that price with alcohol. Problem is, alcohol doesn’t actually pay that price. It just refinances it with a higher interest rate, pushing it down the road until it comes back later, worse than ever before.

The Case for Specialized First Responder Addiction Treatment

Because first responders undergo some unique trials, it’s only sensible they would require unique treatment. After all, we’re always talking about how addiction treatment isn’t “one-size-fits-all.” Yet that treatment is sorely lacking across the country, with a new facility in Upper Marlboro, Maryland being one of the first of its kind. Why can’t first responders just get normal, run-of-the-mill addiction treatment? They can, of course. And any addiction professional who works with them will do everything they can to create an effective treatment plan that deals with their addiction problem and whatever mental health problem they may be suffering from (if any). But there is a certain amount of buy-in required from the person being treated, and at a certain point, the things a first responder has to deal with just simply can’t be related to or even fathomed by someone who hasn’t been there. If a patient thinks their treatment professional doesn’t understand what they’re going through, it’s going to be much more difficult to build a bond of trust. There are a number of high-stress jobs that carry increased rates of substance abuse and mental health disorders. Airplane pilots are another group that suffers heavily from alcohol abuse. In both cases, these are unique circumstances with unique demands. Offering treatment that addresses those problems specifically, rather than in broad strokes, can only help.

Reasons First Responders Don’t Get the Treatment They Need

When 85 percent of your co-workers and peers drink regularly, it’s safe to say that the culture of drinking is pretty much normalized. This is the type of circle where binge drinking is likely to be cheered and celebrated, rather than considered a problem. In that sort of environment, the words “addicted” and “alcoholic” tend to be either taboo, or simply used in jest. It becomes extremely difficult to recognize heavy drinking as a problem in an environment where it is generally glorified, even when the warning signs of abuse are there.. As such, alcohol becomes both a coping mechanism for stress and trauma, as well as something for people to bond over. Addiction often comes with a heavy case of denial, but in these cases, there’s often no actual denial involved. Denial would mean someone has the suspicions that there is a problem, but simply ignores, hides, or suppresses them. That’s not happening here, and it’s because of a culture that often doesn’t see drinking in any quantity as a problem, and also doesn’t accommodate any show of weakness or vulnerability. Many first responders will deny even a physical injury, much less mental or emotional wounds. This is yet another reason why specialized addiction treatment for these heroes could be so important for these heroes. They have to know it’s okay to be vulnerable and get the help they need. Just because they’re heroes, that doesn’t mean they’re invincible, and they don’t always have to act like it. This is a line of work where people run headfirst into danger every day, and yet people are three times more likely to take their own lives than fall victim to that danger. How many of these heroes’ lives could we save, simply by getting them the help they need when they need it? What do you think? Does it make sense to expand occupation-specific addiction recovery treatment, for first responders or any other high-stress occupation that needs it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.