Substance Abuse & Mental Health Disorders Among First Responders

Many of us see police officers, firefighters and EMT workers as people that have it together and help others out with their problems. But what happens when it’s the police officer or firefighter who’s suffering and in need of help? Public safety workers are constantly dealing with trauma and seeing things that most people don’t have to deal with, and while they are trained for such work, sometimes tragedies become too much to handle.

9/11 and PTSD

A study done after 9/11 showed that 1-in-8 rescue and recovery workers at the World Trade Center suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that is generally caused by experiences of fear or terror. Anxiety is often associated with this disorder, and the cause can be any kind of trauma, such as war, accident, or personal injury. Many people who suffer from it develop family and work problems because of their fear, anxiety, trouble sleeping, emotional stress, and flashbacks. Drug and alcohol abuse are also common results of PTSD.

During the rescue and recovery of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, public safety officers encountered awful sights as they cleared up the wreckage and bodies of victims, including many of their colleagues. It may be natural to think that seeing those sights would cause someone to be filled with anxiety afterward, and turn to alcohol and drugs.

On September 11, 2001, 343 NYC firefighters lost their lives in the World Trade Center attacks. Some firehouses lost most of their men and women all within a matter of minutes. As many as 20 funerals were held daily for the fallen workers.

Events like that aren’t easy to get over, even for those who have been trained to handle traumatic situations. According to New York City’s three 9/11 health programs, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) plagues at least 10,000 fire fighters, police officers, and civilians who were exposed to the attacks. (1) This kind of disaster can lead to other things too, such as substance abuse and addiction among the suffering. In spring of 2004, the number of FDNY firefighters and EMS workers being treated for alcohol and drug abuse was more than 50 percent higher than the previous year. (2) However, studies also estimate that only 5% of firefighters who need help for a drug or alcohol problem actually seek out that help.

All Part of the Job?

While 9/11 was the most troubling task rescue workers have had to endure in our country, public safety officers face life-changing trauma every day. Firefighters are constantly putting themselves in danger; many times fearing they will not make it out alive. Police officers have to deal with the bad things people do, and the results of their horrific crimes. EMT workers see and treat injuries and attempt to save lives destroyed by accidents or trauma. Sometimes it is the stress of a few incidents that builds up over time, sometimes it is one tragic or scary event, but public safety officers are at risk for mental disorders such as PTSD, as well as substance abuse.

Out Into the Open

We must shed light on the subject of mental illness and substance abuse in order to help public safety officers dealing with PTSD. Since these workers are viewed as being the country’s rescuers and protectors, there’s a very strong feeling of pride associated with the job. To admit that there is a problem can be a difficult thing to do. Many workers suffer in silence today, when help can actually be very effective.

Passage of The First Responder Bill

There has been some legislation since 9/11 that sets up funds to help with doctor bills and treatment for the first responders and others who were affected by that day. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act (also known as the First Responder Bill) provides $4.3 billion to treat people who were affected. There are many long term problems that these surviving safety workers face, such as PTSD, depression, panic disorder, substance abuse, asthma, lung disease, and sleep apnea. While the First Responder Bill provides coverage for many workers, it does not yet cover treatment for a few things such as cancer, something people are fighting to amend.

Find Help for PTSD and Addiction

Once the problem has been identified, PTSD can be treated with intense therapy and sometimes medication. The more time that passes before treatment begins, the worse the effects of the disorder will be. Anxiety will increase, depression could occur, and the risks of substance abuse increase. By talking about PTSD and the fact that real people suffer from it, we can encourage others to get treatment for PTSD.

There are many first responders who will not seek out the treatment they need for substance abuse and mental health disorders. It is important to create and maintain more programs designed specifically for firefighters, EMTs, or police officers. Because of the public’s view of these individuals as being able to handle anything, they need a place where they can receive healing among their own. Without outside pressures or expectations or embarrassments, a public safety worker can feel comfortable enough to be open about their feelings and experiences. Treatment is usually more effective for these individuals when they are going through it with others similar to them.

As firefighters do, they continue to stick together. Many firefighters from around the country are on their way to NYC this weekend to support their fellow workers for this year’s anniversary.

Much of our country has recovered from the terrorist attacks, even if we are forever changed. For some people, however, the pain is still very real, and they are in need of help to get their lives back on track, even ten years later.

Unsure where to start? Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. This evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are designed to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result. Please be aware that this evaluation is not a substitute for advice from a medical doctor.