Firefighters & First Responders Risk of Substance Abuse
Treatment Experts on the Latest Research, Best Practices and Treatment Options – October 2015
For firefighters and first responders, maintaining optimum mental wellness is a critical part of remaining active and effective on the job as well as at home. Constant exposure to trauma, life-threatening situations, and the physical strain of working long hours on little to no sleep can negatively impact overall mental health, increasing the vulnerability and risk of substance abuse and addiction among firefighters and first responders.
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“Because of the extreme things we see in our everyday line of duty…It’s easy to develop an ‘us-and-them’ attitude. It’s very tempting to want to stay with those who understand – and soon family and friends can even be excluded. We have to watch out for that.”
— Retired Fire Captain Michael Morse
The Stigma of Mental Illness in the US
The 2007 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suggest that the stigma against those who are living with mental illness is a significant issue in the United States. For example, only 24.6 percent of participants who were living with mental health symptoms thought that people would care about their struggle. Fortunately, this same study found that 57.3 percent of respondents who were not struggling with mental health symptoms believed that people were sympathetic to the issue. These survey results could be interpreted as those with mental health issue mistakenly underestimate the overall sympathetic nature of the general population when it comes to those suffering from mental health issues. Furthermore, the study also found that almost 77.6 percent of people living with mental health symptoms and almost 88.6 percent of those not living with mental health issues believed that treatment could assist in helping the person to live a balanced and “normal” life. These survey results could be viewed as showing an overwhelming consensus that treatment is a good thing.
What do these findings suggest? Possibilities include:
- Lower rates of people in need of treatment seeking help due to fear of being judged by others
- Increased self-judgment and incidences of depression and low self-esteem among those living with mental health symptoms
- Increased attempts to self-medicate mental health symptoms through drugs and alcohol rather than seeking treatment
- Decreased likelihood that family members will admit that the struggles of a family member are signs of anything more than
a passing phase or “normal,” especially among first responders given the nature of the job
- Less support for people in recovery from mental illness (e.g., professionally, among peers, in the community, etc.)
For firefighters, first responders, and their families, the stigma against mental health issues can be an obstacle to treatment. Not wanting to call attention to their struggle and preferring instead to focus on the job, many in the profession do not want to acknowledge that they might be in need of treatment or that their symptoms may be complicating their ability to function physically and/or mentally.
This indicates that while preventative behavioral health has taken a while to gain broad scale traction, things are changing for the better.
An upsurge in prevention and education efforts across support organizations for active firefighters and first responders as well as retired veterans, including organizations like the National Fire Protection Association, has helped to increase awareness of how common mental health issues may be among first responders and firefighters. It has also improved access to appropriate care and treatment.