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Healing Our Heroes: Mental Health and Addiction Amongst First Responders

​​The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that depression and PTSD are five times more common in first responders than in the general population. Over 85% of first responders report symptoms related to mental health conditions. Firefighters and police officers are more likely to die by suicide than while on duty.

As we navigate through the complexities of addiction and mental health, we must shed light on the unique challenges faced by our brave first responders. These individuals, who selflessly put their lives on the line to ensure our safety, often bear the weight of many traumatic experiences that can manifest in various forms, including addiction and mental health struggles.

In this blog article, we will discuss common mental health and addiction issues for first responders, the impact mental health has on them, the stigma and problems they face when seeking help, and common forms of effective treatment for first responders and their families. 

Two EMTs sitting in the back of their ambulance

Mental Health and Addiction in First Responders

First responders, including firefighters, law enforcement officers such as FBI agents, police officers, paramedics, military personnel, federal agents, U.S. marshals, rescuers, and Red Cross members, amongst many others, face up to 700 life-altering, traumatic events each year while the average person faces only 1-2 of these events. Given their occupational demands, it is rather obvious how their jobs can have an impact on their mental health.  

The US Department of Health has documented some statistics provided on first responders and their mental health in a supplement from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Help for Heroes Program.  The statistics reveal the following associated with firefighters, police officers, and EMS professionals:

“It is estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including, but not limited to, depression and [PTSD], as compared with 20% in the general population. In a study about suicidality, firefighters were reported to have higher attempt and ideation rates than the general population. In law enforcement, the estimates suggest between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide every year.”

While at LA Valley Recovery we do not specialize in helping first responders, we are qualified to do so.  We have all of the necessary protocols and treatment options to ensure that you or your loved one will get the best possible care. 

Please reach out to us today to get more information on our treatment services. 

Common Mental Health Challenges Faced by First Responders

The worry, fear, and threat of physical harm strains first responders. The realization that they may be unable to save everyone from their suffering compounds this. Some common conditions that first responders may suffer from include:

High Anxiety Levels

First responders may encounter anxiety issues, including panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), and various phobias.

Severe Depression and Suicidal Tendencies

First responders may suffer from varying levels of depression, and other feelings of hopelessness and guilt sometimes accompany these feelings. Insomnia, bulimia, and anorexia are other issues they experience. A high level of depression could lead to suicidal tendencies.


PTSD levels can vary from one responder to another and depend mainly on the severity of the traumatic episodes they’ve encountered.

Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder has symptoms similar to PTSD, but they occur for less than a month after the trauma occurs. Then, the symptoms dissipate on their own. They may binge on alcohol and drugs during stress but usually don’t get addicted to the substance. However, there are instances when the symptoms progressively worsen instead of getting better, leading to PTSD. This disorder can occur owing to being exposed first-hand to the traumatic event, being involved in it, or being witness to its aftermath. Auto accidents, natural disasters, social conflicts including war and riots, terrorist attacks, or severely violent abuse acts comprise some traumatic events.(SAMSHA)

Co-Occurring Disorders

When first responders suffer from a mental health issue and a substance abuse disorder, they experience co-occurring conditions. The severity of one issue depends on the other. A substance-induced mental health disorder occurs when the addiction causes the mental health illness, and when someone who has a mental health disorder starts to abuse substances, that is a substance use disorder. This must be managed with a type of treatment called dual diagnosis. Learn more about dual diagnosis at LA Valley Recovery.

For information on how to start on your path to recovery, please contact us for more information.

The Impact of Mental Health Issues on First Responders

A firefighter putting out a flame on what seems to be the remains of an airplane or building

Mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression can significantly strain personal relationships for first responders. They may become emotionally withdrawn, irritable, or experience mood swings, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts with partners and children. The constant exposure to trauma can make it difficult for first responders to fully engage in family activities, leading to feelings of isolation both for themselves and their loved ones.  

These feelings of isolation and self-loathing can build up into something that they cannot handle on their own.  Due to the stigmas of asking for help, the answer can easily be a drink or some sort of drug to numb the emotional pain. 

Marriages and partnerships often suffer when one partner is struggling with untreated mental health issues. Divorce rates among first responders are notably high, (nearly 45% according to a study) partly due to the stresses and strains that the job places on their loved ones. Support groups such as a men's group and couples therapy can be crucial in helping first responders and their families navigate these challenges. 

Physical Health and Well-being for First Responders

The mind-body connection means that mental health issues can manifest as physical health problems. Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, and gastrointestinal issues (to name only a few). Sleep disorders are also common, with many first responders experiencing insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns due to shift work and high stress. Some ways to combat these mind-body connection issues are meditation, mindfulness techniques, and exercise. 

Physical fitness can decline as mental health issues lead to a lack of motivation or energy to exercise. Substance abuse, often used as a coping mechanism, can further deteriorate physical health. It can be really hard to maintain a workout routine while navigating your daily life.  The chaotic schedule of a first responder usually makes them have to be in rather good shape to perform their duties to the highest levels.  But, while the job may call for this high level of activity, the mental strain may outweigh the physical.  In other words, it may be physically possible for someone to do their job, but if they are not mentally “there” that puts themselves, their coworkers, and the public at risk. 

Woman running up big hill in black and white

This is where keeping up with your physical health is critical.  As we mentioned before, your mental health can deteriorate just as fast, if not faster than your physical.  Keeping the mind and the body, the mental and physical connection is a key component to any good life.  

It is important to reach out for help if you are feeling like you have gotten to a breaking point or just need someone to speak with to see what your options are. 

We are here to help.  Please do not hesitate to reach out to us now for more information regarding recovery.

Barriers to Seeking Help

The culture within many first responder organizations emphasizes toughness and resilience, which can discourage individuals from acknowledging their mental health struggles and seeking help. Admitting to mental health issues is often seen as a sign of weakness, potentially undermining a first responder's reputation within their community. This cultural norm fosters a fear of judgment from colleagues and supervisors, further preventing individuals from accessing the support they need and leading to a worsening of their condition. 

Changing this culture requires an effort from leadership positions to promote mental health awareness and normalize seeking help through training programs and campaigns that highlight the importance of mental health. Creating a supportive environment where mental health is openly discussed and respected is essential.

Leaders can set the tone by sharing their own experiences and encouraging others to seek help without fear of retribution. Studies indicate that the prevalence of alcohol abuse among first responders ranges from 16% to 40%, with peer encouragement playing a significant role in their drinking behavior (NAADC). This self-medication can provide temporary relief but often leads to a vicious cycle of dependence, further exacerbating mental health issues and impairing their ability to perform their duties safely and effectively.

The cycle of using substances to drown out some of the noise that many first responders have to deal with after a serious accident, event,...etc can easily turn into something more serious.  Addiction is a disease and once it gets a hold of you it will not want to let go.  The disease of addiction extends beyond the addict themselves and begins to affect their colleagues, family, and the public as a whole.  The seriousness of their job and duties required them to be functioning at a high capacity when working.  Abusing substances quickly deteriorates that mentality and leads to a downward spiral that is very difficult to get out of.

Strategies for Supporting Mental Health in First Responders

Asking for help is always the hardest part. Since there are many, now sober, current and former first responders, it is often very helpful to have them reach out for a helping hand.  While this isnt always an option, there are many ways of getting help for both mental health issues and substance abuse. Being there for someone in need is sometimes all they need. The recovery community is always accepting of those suffering from addiction. Relating to your peers is a key component to receiving the help you need.

There is a shortage of mental health professionals who are trained to understand the unique challenges faced by first responders. This lack of specialized resources can make it difficult for individuals to find appropriate care. But, it is getting better.  The mental health crisis has brought the issues that first responders face to light and more and more are starting to seek treatment and organizations are implementing strategies to deal with mental health and addiction crises. 

Mental Health Training and Awareness Programs

Regular training sessions that educate first responders about mental health, stress management, and the importance of self-care can help reduce stigma and promote a culture of awareness. These programs should include information on recognizing signs of mental health issues in oneself and others.

Workshops and seminars led by mental health professionals can provide valuable insights and practical strategies for managing mental health. Organizations should also offer resources such as stress reduction techniques and resilience training.

Peer Support Programs

Policy Changes

Individual Strategies for First Responders

Teaching first responders healthy coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness, meditation, and physical exercise, can help them manage stress and prevent burnout. Providing resources and training on these techniques can empower individuals to take control of their mental health.

Encouraging hobbies, social activities, and other forms of relaxation can also help first responders maintain a healthy work-life balance. Organizations can support these activities by offering flexible scheduling and wellness programs.

Importance of Work-Life Balance

Promoting a healthy work-life balance is crucial for preventing burnout and maintaining mental health. This can include policies that limit overtime, ensure adequate rest periods, and encourage time off for personal activities.

Leaders should model healthy work-life balance behaviors and encourage their teams to prioritize their well-being. Providing resources such as employee assistance programs and mental health days can also support this balance. (information provided by the CDC)

In conclusion

For anyone, mental and physical health is essential to leading a wholesome and fulfilling life to provide for your family and enjoy a good lifestyle. It is even more critical for a first responder to enjoy good mental and physical health as they are open to various traumas daily. Being regularly prone to dangerous events and lack of sleep could exacerbate the problem.

If you or someone you know is looking for help for a drug or alcohol addiction, please get in touch with us today for help.

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