Addiction Among First Responders

When you think about first responders, you likely think about brave men and women, serving to protect their communities on a daily basis. You likely picture police officers, firefighters and paramedics dressed in uniform, ready to respond at a moment’s notice. They are the embodiment of bravery, selflessness and heroism. Scores of children wish to follow in the footsteps of these courageous men and women. However, you are far less likely to hear about a decorated first responder seeking treatment for addiction. Why? The subject of drug or alcohol addiction is taboo, and many people stigmatize the subject, particularly when the subject involves some of the most respected members of our society – first responders.

It’s no secret that first responders are at risk for PTSD. In fact, research shows that as high as 30 percent of first responders suffer from PTSD. Furthermore, it is estimated that about 20 percent of individuals suffering from PTSD will also have a co-occuring substance use disorder. First responders are responsible for providing life-saving care and support during, what many would call, their most desperate hour. Now imagine responding to several traumatic events daily. Often times these events involve extremely graphic scenes, scenes that even the most seasoned first responders, have difficulty processing. Despite their stoic appearance, these events are strenuous and draining to first responders, often resulting in sleepless nights or seeking comfort in a bear or a cocktail.

Why are first responders at risk for addiction?

Gathering for a drink with coworkers at the end of a shift is not part of the job description, but is instilled in American culture, particularly for first responders. This is likely due to the immense amount of stress that accompanies these types of careers and relaxing over a beer with friends is considered a “healthy” way to blow off some steam. First responders are viewed by many in society as “real life superheroes”, placing an enormous amount of pressure and expectations for these individuals to uphold. Many first responders suffering from PTSD do not seek the appropriate mental health services to help cope with their condition, and choose to self-medicate instead, often leading to developing a substance addiction. This puts the first responder in an even greater predicament because many first responders do not seek treatment for drug or alcohol addiction for fear of jeopardizing their career.

Take the case of Henderson County (Nev.) firefighter and paramedic Robbie Pettingill. The 35-year-old first responder had suffered from depression and addiction, which was exacerbated by job-related PTSD, ultimately resulting in Pettingill taking his own life. His father, a retired firefighter who had also worked for the Henderson Fire Department, died by suicide four months prior. This very sad story should shed light on the demands placed on the shoulders of our first responders and how imperative it is that we eliminate the stigma associated with mental health and addiction. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with addiction, give us a call. We’re available 24/7: (888) 771-8372

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