The work of first responders is necessary and vital for the community. They provide physical and emotional support to survivors and put their lives at risk to protect others and this can take its toll. Long hours, exposure to death, injury, and loss, and physical challenges can create high levels of stress and cause sleep disturbances. The work is fast-paced and intense, and there is often little time between calls to process and recover from trauma witnessed. The combination of all of these factors can put those responsible for the public’s safety at a high risk for developing mental health conditions and addiction.
Mental Health and First Responders
Rates of mental health disorders are high in first responders. Because of the nature of their work, they are routinely subjected to traumatic experiences that are unavoidable. Some of the most common disorders observed in first responders include:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Repeated exposure to traumatic events can increase the likelihood of this disorder’s development. Symptoms such as overwhelming fear, flashbacks, and nightmares can be attributed to traumatic experiences. Many with PTSD may feel on edge, struggle with sleep, and may have feelings of guilt associated with past experiences. It can lead to avoidant behaviors that make it difficult to enjoy hobbies and can cause some to struggle with feelings of detachment.
- Anxiety: There are many forms of anxiety that can be triggered by trauma. In general, anxiety can lead to the development of obsessive or intrusive thoughts, intense fear, and disrupted sleep. Anxiety can disrupt everyday experiences, making it difficult to spend time in public places, creating social anxiety, or lead to the development of a panic disorder.
- Depression: Routine exposure to death, injury, and trauma can easily lead to the development of depression. First responders are subjected to some of the worst aspects of life on a regular basis and it can lead to the development of depressive symptoms. Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, sadness, or suicidal thoughts may develop. Much like other mental health disorders, symptoms can range in severity.
- Substance abuse: Drugs and alcohol are frequently misused to cope with traumatic events. First responders are at a higher risk for developing substance abuse disorders because of the nature of their work. Substances may be used as a form of self-medication for symptoms of mental health disorders. The combination of mental health disorders and substance abuse is referred to as a “co-occurring disorder” and the coexistence of these can worsen overall physical and mental health.
Addressing Substance Abuse Rates in First Responders
A high percentage of the population struggles with mental health and substance abuse disorders, but first responders are affected at a disproportionately higher rate. The nature of their work requires organizations to take an active role in educating first responders, identifying risks and symptoms, and proactively intervening when necessary.
- Prepare first responders: Adequate training and education surrounding the nature of the job is vital in preparing first responders to handle trauma. First responders should be equipped with the tools to reach out for help from peers and be able to assess their ability to handle overwhelming stress. Leadership in organizations can help first responders develop these abilities by providing training, access to therapy, and resources to help them cope.
- Open communication: Everyone deals with stress and trauma differently. Providing mental health care and training following the experience of a traumatic event can help a person better cope with it. It is also vital that first responders look out for one another and are educated on how to identify signs of a developing problem. First responders should also be provided with the time and space to recover from traumatic experiences so that they do not become all-consuming.
- Education, intervention, and care: Rates of burnout are high in first responders and it can be difficult to find adequate time to recover. The ability to recognize the signs of substance abuse or symptoms of a mental health disorder is critical in providing care. Education about mental health and substance abuse can help first responders identify developing problems in themselves or those around them.
If you’re a first responder who is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, contact Nexus Recovery Services today for help.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, we are here to help. Give us a call at 888.855.6877 or send us a message below and one of our admissions counselors will do their best to get you the help you need.