First responders are those who are first to arrive on the scene of an accident, crime, disaster or terrorist attacks. A first responder is the first on the scene to provide care in some of the most demanding and dangerous situations. Although these heroic duties are extremely essential for society, they can also be both physically and emotionally draining to those in these careers. Unfortunately, the constant exposure to dangerous, life-threatening situations, along with the physical strain of working for long hours and on little sleep often results in first responders turning to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, which may increase the risk of developing an addiction and/or mental health disorder. The good news is there are treatment programs available that are designed specifically for first responders.

Challenges First Responders Face When Seeking Addiction Treatment

A first responder is often fearful of seeking help for a substance abuse problem because of the stigmas that are associated with seeking help for an addiction or mental health issue. These individuals often worry that their coworkers will view them as weak and their supervisor will treat them differently and that seeking addiction treatment will cost them their career.  When seeking treatment for drug abuse and/or mental health issues, it is important that the treatment is in a first responder environment, which means an environment consisting of other first responders as well as staff members who fully understand the dangers of the career as well as the stigmas associated with seeking help. Being able to rely on their treatment team for support is essential for successful addiction treatment.

Signs of Substance Abuse in First Responders

First, it’s important to understand that almost all people with substance abuse issues typically attempt to hide the fact that they are using drugs and/or alcohol. So, the signs of substance abuse in first responders are similar to the signs of substance abuse in those who aren’t first responders. It is also extremely important to understand that first responders are the first people to arrive on the scene, which puts them in the position of being the first to see horrific outcomes. Unfortunately, these images often lead to co-occurring mental health issues as well, such as PTSD, depression, stress, and anxiety, so it is important to be aware of not only the signs of drug abuse but the signs of mental health issues as well. Signs of substance abuse may include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact
  • Experiencing memory lapses
  • Difficulty recalling specific details
  • Randomly falling asleep
  • Shaking hands, twitching eyelids or tremors
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Appearing disoriented or distracted
  • Impaired coordination
  • Overly energetic
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Having panic attacks or appearing fearful
  • Outbursts of anger or increasingly defiant
  • Requires assistance with basic tasks, such as filling out paperwork
  • Being irritated, impatient and/or overly irritable

Many of these signs are common in both substance abuse and mental health issues, so it’s essential that they not be overlooked or targeted as being one or the other. When there are co-occurring issues, both must be treated at the same time. For instance, substance abuse should not be treated before considering treatment for mental health issues and vice versa. Resorting to drugs and/or alcohol provides temporary relief, unfortunately, substance abuse generally follows. For a first responder, admitting they are traumatized by their experiences and that they need help may put them at risk of losing their career, so it is important to keep in mind that peer support is critical and those providing addiction treatments should have the experience and compassion required to work with first responders.