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First Responder Addiction Treatment Program

First responders often face unique stressors and struggles when it comes to addiction, but specialized treatment can help.

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First responders are usually the first ones on the scene when there is an emergency or disaster and they are often the first to assist others in emotionally and physically hazardous situations.1 However, many first responders may find themselves struggling with substance misuse or co-occurring mental health disorders related to the stressors they experience in their work.1 Police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, 911 operators and emergency dispatchers, emergency room nurses and physicians, and other first responders and emergency workers are at increased risk of developing mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.1 Luckily, there are addiction treatment programs specialized to help first responders achieve recovery and live a healthy life.

Drugs and Alcohol Use in First Responders

Stress is a leading risk factor in the development of addiction and vulnerability to relapse.2 It is not uncommon for people under chronic stress to develop maladaptive coping behaviors, like using drugs or alcohol, as a way to escape from the effects of trauma, depression, or anxiety. 2  This misuse of drugs or alcohol to manage distressing symptoms of a mental health condition is sometimes referred to as “self-medicating.” First responders may be at an increased risk of developing certain mental health disorders like substance use disorder or PTSD.4

In addition, research indicates that people exposed to chronic stress or those who show symptoms of PTSD often have hormonal responses that do not return to normal after the stress has passed. This can make them even more susceptible to stress-related illnesses and addictive behaviors like substance abuse.

Co-Occurring Disorders Within First Responders

Many first responders experience PTSD after witnessing or experiencing traumatic events. Evidence suggests that the prevalence of PTSD is significantly higher in first responders than in the general population.

Symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Intrusive memories, like flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Avoidance, including not wanting to speak about the traumatic event or go back to the place where it happened.
  • Cognitive and mood changes, like feeling guilty, worried, depressed, or detached.
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions, like hypervigilance, trouble sleeping, or angry outbursts.

Among people with PTSD, lifetime rates of substance use disorders (SUDs) can be as high as 52%.6 The co-occurrence of PTSD and addiction are associated with poor treatment response, cognitive difficulties, impaired social functioning, and greater suicide risk.6  While people suffering from PTSD misuse many substances, including alcohol and marijuana, they tend to misuse some of the more serious and addictive substances like opioids and cocaine.6

What Stigma do First Responders Face?

First responders are seen as brave, strong, and stoic people who run into burning buildings or into the line of fire to save others. However, they are also human and can be very much affected by the events they experience. Fear of being stigmatized and seen as perhaps being emotional or fearful can prevent many first responders from speaking up about their mental health or substance abuse, much less asking for help or treatment.1

There are some things first responders can do to help get support. Developing a buddy system can be beneficial; where 2 first responders pair up to support each other and monitor each other’s workload and stress levels.7  Self-care techniques can be an essential part of people’s emotional and mental health as well.

Setting boundaries regarding hours worked each day or each week, talking to friends and family, learning some basic breathing and relaxation techniques, and getting enough sleep and food can all be essential aspects of a person’s mental and physical health.

Specialized First Responder Substance Abuse Treatment

There are specialized treatment programs that are designed to address the unique needs of first responders may lead to positive outcomes. Many types of therapy can be beneficial and foster a sense of community and positive peer relationships, such as:

  • Skills-acquisition training. This training can include psychoeducation and the development of basic coping skills like self-care, emotional regulation, management of co-occurring mental health disorders, and resilience training.4
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy.This type of therapy focuses on helping people identify and correct problematic behavior patterns and implement effective coping strategies to manage triggers and cravings.8 In particular, research suggests that first responders may benefit from cognitive processing therapy (CPT), a type of CBT designed specifically for those struggling with PTSD.4
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy. This type has a broader therapeutic impact than simply a reduction in problem behaviors and symptom management.4, 9 It is a well-established treatment for people with psychosocial disorders (mental illness caused by life experiences) and has been effective for people experiencing suicidal thoughts. It is a comprehensive treatment program where the goal is to help people build a life worth living by envisioning, articulating, and pursuing goals.9
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR has been proven to be an effective trauma therapy.4 By directing a patient’s attention to an external stimulus while concentrating on the emotionally disturbing experience, the patient experiences sequential exposure, desensitization, and cognitive restructuring.

First Responder Rehab Programs Near Me

As with any medical issue, it is important for the person considering treatment to talk with their doctor about their individual needs. They may be able to point them toward treatment programs based on the patient’s personal history.

If you would like more information on first responder addiction treatment programs, there are many available options. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a convenient treatment services locator on their website to help you find local treatment options.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) operates a confidential helpline, with several employees trained in veteran and first responders’ relations that connect these groups of people to rehab programs that meet their needs. Call or text us to speak to an admissions navigator and learn more; they are available 24/7 to help answer your questions.