Firefighters, like other first responders, have unique needs when it comes to mental health care. The stress of the job, combined with exposure to repeated trauma, increases the risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and other mental health conditions.
Some firefighters also drink or use drugs to cope with stress, leading to chronic substance use requiring professional treatment.
Mental Health Concerns in First Responders
Many firefighters struggle with substance use as a result of their experiences in the field. In a study published in Occupational Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, a team of researchers from the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research in Kansas surveyed more than 600 firefighters regarding their substance use. At the end of the study, the research team reported that 58% of career firefighters and 40% of volunteer firefighters averaged three or more drinks on the days they consumed alcohol. Additionally, 9% of career firefighters and 10% of volunteer firefighters reported that they had driven while intoxicated within the previous 30 days.
Alcohol consumption isn’t the only concern when it comes to substance abuse among firefighters. Due to their exposure to repeated trauma, some firefighters use marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other substances to cope with stress or ease anxiety. This type of substance abuse is especially risky as it can cause serious health problems and leave firefighters impaired when they need to be alert and ready to battle a blaze.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder develops in people who’ve been exposed to some type of trauma. In some people, PTSD occurs after exposure to a single traumatic event, such as a natural disaster or a major house fire. PTSD can also develop in people who are exposed to repeated trauma over time.
Firefighters and other emergency responders are exposed to traumatic events on a regular basis. They may watch people die of smoke inhalation, rescue people who are burned over a large portion of their bodies and assist with emergencies involving domestic violence or life-threatening substance abuse. As a result, they may start to experience flashbacks, nightmares, distressing memories, severe anxiety and other PTSD symptoms.
Unfortunately, many fire departments don’t do enough to help firefighters, military veterans and other first responders deal with their trauma, making PTSD more common in some cities than others. It’s important to have a critical incident stress debriefing after a traumatic event, but fire departments should also be working to remove the stigma of having a mental health disorder. Some firefighters are afraid to seek help because they believe they’ll be penalized professionally or socially for admitting they’ve been unable to cope on their own.
Identifying Addiction in First Responders
Some firefighters are able to hide their substance abuse, but others display behavioral changes that should concern their family members, friends and fellow first responders. One of those changes is difficulty managing personal and professional responsibilities. For example, a firefighter struggling with substance abuse may not prioritize patient safety or communicate effectively with colleagues. Firefighters dealing with alcohol addiction or drug abuse may also have difficulty maintaining fulfilling romantic relationships or carrying out their parenting responsibilities. Sudden financial difficulties are also a potential sign of addiction, as people struggling with substance abuse may empty their bank accounts, take out loans or borrow money from friends and family members to afford alcohol or drugs.
Loved ones should also be on the lookout for a change in activity level. A firefighter who normally does a lot of physical activity may be struggling with substance abuse if they suddenly become sedentary for no reason. In some people, a lack of interest in normal activities is one of the symptoms of depression or PTSD. Other people stop exercising because they feel ill from drinking too much alcohol or using illicit substances.
Behavioral Health Treatment for First Responders
Behavioral health treatment can help first responders identify the underlying causes of their substance abuse and help them make positive changes in their lives. No single treatment plan works for everyone, so it’s important for firefighters with addiction issues, PTSD and other mental health conditions to undergo a thorough assessment and receive a treatment plan that’s been customized to meet their needs.
An addiction treatment plan typically includes the following components:
Behavioral therapies are one of the most important components of an effective alcohol rehab or drug rehab program. This type of therapy can help a firefighter struggling with addiction learn how to set firm boundaries and cope with work-related trauma without turning to alcohol and drugs for comfort. A therapist can also help first responders change their negative thought patterns, allowing them to make better decisions in their personal and professional lives.
When a person who’s been drinking alcohol or using drugs over a long period of time tries to quit cold turkey, they may experience a variety of withdrawal symptoms. Nausea, vomiting, headaches, shaking and other symptoms make the withdrawal process difficult and cause some people to relapse just so they can stop feeling so ill. Medications can reduce the severity of drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms, making it easier for someone who’s ready to start addiction treatment to completely eliminate substances from their body.
Group and Family Therapy
Group therapy and family therapy can also be helpful for first responders who are addicted to alcohol and drugs. During the treatment process, talking to other people about their experiences can make it easier to stay on the road to recovery. Group therapy also gives attendees a chance to improve their listening skills and learn valuable lessons from people who’ve learned how to cope with their traumatic experiences without drinking or using drugs.
Addiction takes a toll on the body as well as the mind, so many treatment programs include holistic therapies to improve the mind-body connection. Massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy and other holistic therapies can help you stay on the path to recovery.
Patients in residential alcohol rehab or drug rehab programs typically have access to aftercare to reduce their risk of relapse. Aftercare may include ongoing counseling, support group meetings and other services to help firefighters return to their communities without giving in to the temptation to drink or use drugs.
Seek Treatment Today
If you’ve been struggling with addiction or PTSD as a result of your experiences as a firefighter, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Greenbranch Recovery has experienced, compassionate treatment professionals ready to assess you and develop a customized treatment plan to meet your needs. Located in Egg Harbor Township, Greenbranch Recovery helps people from Ocean City, Atlantic City, Cherry Hill and other parts of New Jersey get their lives back on track. Call (833) 272-6246 to schedule your admission.