Paramedics, firefighters, and police officers are considered the heroic protectors in our communities. The brave men and women who work to keep us safe deal with higher stress levels than in their day-to-day lives than others. Although these heroes work tirelessly to keep us safe, it doesn’t mean they aren’t prone to developing an alcohol addiction or drug addiction.
Their exposure to traumatic events and stress increases their chances of developing a mental health disorder or addiction problem. First responders must mitigate dangerous situations on a daily basis. Despite the rigorous training procedures required before they’re on the job, the total stress of it all will eventually take a toll on their mental health.
It all stems from stressful job demands, long shifts, traumatic events, and pressure that arises from responding to emergencies. Unfortunately, it’s relatively common for first responders to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety disorders.
When mental health disorders are left untreated, it may cause first responders to self-medicate with alcohol to cope with their pain. It’s common for first responders to develop an alcohol addiction in this way. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to addiction and first responders can make these heroes resist help, which further propels the problem.
First responders might engage in social drinking and never develop a full-blown addiction. However, it is possible, and fortunately, help is available for first responders and alcohol addiction. Even heroes need help sometimes.
When you choose to be a first responder as a career, you will confront severe injuries, violence, and death on a daily basis. It can lead to feeling isolated, which makes these individuals more susceptible to developing an alcohol addiction at a higher rate than the general population.
Those employed in these professions often turn to alcohol to mask the stress of the job. Police officers, firefighters, and paramedics often turn to alcohol for social interaction and unwind from a traumatic or stressful day. We understand pressure comes with the territory, but first responders also report drinking for other reasons, including managing stress, peer support, maintaining a chaotic schedule, and managing stress.
Stressful work environments are often the culprit behind developing an addiction to alcohol, but first responders are more vulnerable because of the type of trauma they encounter regularly. Traumatic work situations include running into a building that’s on fire, witnessing a horrific event or crime, shooting a suspect, or witnessing an accident or death.
These intense situations become routine, and it’s not uncommon for a first responder to turn to alcohol or other drugs to ease the tensions of a day like this. Acute and chronic stress may also cause first responders to look for alternative coping strategies, leading to self-medication with alcohol.
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It’s common for movies and television to portray first responders as heading to a bar after a hard day of work to let off some steam or unwind. One study found that police work is a culture, and it views binge drinking or heavy drinking as acceptable behavior. Unfortunately, these behaviors can lead to detrimental effects on their health in the future or lead to arrest if caught driving under the influence.
Binge drinking is viewed as periods of excessive alcohol consumption with the intention of getting drunk. For some first responders, they use this as a retreat after a tough day because it’s socially acceptable in their profession because of the circumstances relating to their job.
When anybody is exposed to traumatic or stressful events, it’s common to develop a stress-related mental health disorder. Unfortunately, first responders run into this on a daily basis, leading to a higher probability of developing mental health disorders.
The pressures from their peers to keep it all together often prevents them from getting the help they need for behavioral health issues. When mental health disorders like PTSD or acute stress disorders go undiagnosed or untreated, it can cause first responders to cope with drinking alcohol.
When it comes to stress-related mental health disorders, first responders are at an exceptionally high risk of developing a behavioral health disorder. Unfortunately, there are several different stress-related mental health disorders, but PTSD and acute stress disorder are the most common in the first responder community.
PTSD is a chronic response to trauma or stress, and acute stress disorder is diagnosed with someone who shows PTSD-like symptoms for a month or less after experiencing a traumatic event. In most cases relating to first responders, acute disorder symptoms will eventually turn into post-traumatic stress disorder.
You must remember that a person does not have to be directly involved with a traumatic event to develop PTSD, and someone can display symptoms of PTSD if they witness any form of trauma. The most common events first responders experience include:
Only a medical professional can diagnose PTSD. There are many signs and symptoms relating to the condition, and without the proper help, it can lead to alcohol consumption to cope with stress. The most common symptoms of PTSD include:
It’s understandable why a first responder might avoid getting help. The stigma attached to seeking help in the field of first responders is enormous, but you have to think about yourself. If you continue drinking or not seeking help, it can lead to destructive behaviors, prison time, losing your job, and even death. There are health centers specifically designed to help first responders with alcohol addiction.
Admitting you have a problem is a challenging first step, but it can change your life and teach you ways to cope with stress other than using alcohol. Once you admit and seek help, the first step will be to enter a detox program. Alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, and going through detox will help mitigate the dangers involved.
Once you complete detox, you will move into the next stage of care, which is designed to help you get to the root of your addiction. You will endure therapy sessions that help you speak about how you’re feeling and learn coping mechanisms to overcome your stress.
If you’re battling an overwhelming desire to drink caused by your profession, it’s time to seek help.
VA (December 2020) Acute Stress Disorder from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/acute_stress.asp
NIDA (December 2020) Types of Treatment Programs from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs
NCBI (February 2011) Patterns and Predictors of Alcohol Use in Male and Female Urban Police Officers from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3592498/
NIMH (December 2020) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml
NIDA (December 2020) Alcohol Addiction from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/evidence-based-approaches-to-drug-addiction-treatment/pharmacotherapies/alcohol