As a First Responder, you encounter a variety of situations, people, and environments. Yours is not a comfortable and climate controlled office, with 9-5 hours. Your office consists of an ambulance, a police car, or perhaps a fire apparatus. Your coworkers don’t wear suits and neither do you. The job you do, day in and day out, places you in situations you probably never dreamed you would be and that no television show could create. Reality for you is seeing people at the worst moments of their lives; it involves regularly interacting with people who abuse your services and scorn you simply for the uniform you put on faithfully every day. In your line of work, you consistently see people in hopeless situations which you try to alleviate, if only for a short time. With all this responsibility, stress, and exposure to traumatic situations, many First Responders experience PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is commonly discussed in regards to victims of violent crimes, chronic abuse, and returning military veterans. But what about the police officers, paramedics, EMT’s, and fire fighters who witness traumatic events, sometimes on a daily basis? The danger for falling into addiction is real for anyone with PTSD. And First Responders are no different.
Search departments across America, and you are almost guaranteed to find one that provides access to an Employee Assistance Program. These programs offer an anonymous means for an employee to seek help with emotional, mental, and addiction issues. Counseling is provided and additional steps are taken when necessary. But how often are these programs utilized? Most First Responders are fiercely independent, don’t like to ask for help, and fear repercussions on the job if they discuss their personal struggles. Recently, the alarming and rising rates of suicide among corrections officers, employed throughout Massachusetts correctional facilities, has caused some to take action and try to improve outreach and support programs. Findings revealed in a 2012 study by the Desert Waters Correctional Outreach showed that 27% of 3600 correctional officers had displayed symptoms of PTSD within the past month¹.
Even if an employer provides realistic and accessible support, many First Responders try to deal with their problems on their own and turn to alcohol and/or drugs. Alcohol seems to be the more widely abused substance, perhaps due to it being a more socially “acceptable” substance. No one questions having an occasional drink but if it becomes a necessity for coping, then it becomes a serious problem. Access to narcotics can be a danger for those in EMS and law enforcement. EMS providers are knowledgeable on health issues and may feel they can “control” their drug use. The stress of chronic exposure to traumatic events or just a one-time event can send a First Responder into PTSD.
Will everyone experiencing PTSD become an addict to drugs or alcohol? No. But the risk is real and needs to be recognized. A First Responder may be tempted to treat their symptoms of PTSD, such as trouble sleeping or difficulty relaxing, with alcohol or drugs. This creates the additional problem of dependence and alcohol and many drugs only exacerbate symptoms like depression, irritability, confusion, and paranoia. Statistics from the VA reveal the following:
- 2 out of 10 veterans with PTSD also have substance abuse issues²
- 1 out of 3 who seek help for substance abuse also have PTSD³
Again going back to the strong nature present in many First Responders, when a back is hurting or you may have pulled a muscle, we usually just treat our self, toughen up, and keep on working. This attitude can spill over into the mental and emotional arena as well. We are the ones people call for help; we begin to think we can conquer the problem on our own. With the increase in suicide rates among First Responders, there is a real need for those in fire services, EMS, and law enforcement to recognize signs and symptoms of PTSD and substance abuse among their coworkers and themselves. Departments need to take away the stigma that surrounds reaching out for help and provide valid resources for employees to utilize. Coworkers need to pay attention and realize that their partner may be having more than just a bad month.
Other resources exist that provide treatment options for those with PTSD and substance abuse. Local counselors and clinics are available in most cities and towns. Perhaps going into a group of strangers, all from different walks of life, is helpful to some. But say you are a paramedic, police officer, or a firefighter. Will you feel comfortable explaining the situations you see and deal with on a daily basis with a school teacher? Lawyer or stay at home parent? Just as you don’t understand the stress experienced by those people, they won’t understand yours. To efficiently perform your task as a First Responder, you must maintain professionalism and keep your calm. To some this may come across as uncaring or calloused. Perhaps you are calloused and need to discuss your experiences with someone who will understand making your 20th call to the same house in the same month. Or what it is like to arrest the same person, over and over again, just to see them back out on the streets. Maybe you just dealt with the loss of a coworker. As a First Responder, your coworkers truly become like family, for better or worse. The hours you spend together and experiences you share bring you closer in a way you can’t share with anyone else.
Station House Retreat is a place that you can get qualified, caring, and understanding help. This is a place that is specific in its goal to provide treatment for first responders and their families. The staff knows what your job entails and the strain that is placed on your life. They know you miss family events and holidays; they know you work insane hours and the toll it takes on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. They understand you deal with the mundane to the surreal, all in a matter of minutes. Treatment plans are tailored so you will be surrounded by people who truly understand what it’s like in your shoes. Help is also available for your family, so they can be a part of the healing process and receive support as well. Whether you recently suffered a traumatic event and now are dealing with PTSD, and possibly substance abuse, or if you have chronic exposure, there is help for you at Station House Retreat.