addiction recovery

First Responders and Alcohol Abuse

Published on December 4, 2019 by First Responder Wellness

The work of first responders like police officers, firefighters, and EMTs is both demanding
and rewarding. These individuals may have been drawn to their career out of a desire to be of
service and practice compassion, but over time the constant exposure to pain, violence, and loss can
take a toll on the human psyche. First responders are significantly more likely to develop behavioral
health disorders and addictions than the general population, and also report several unique
obstacles to seeking help for these issues. Alcohol abuse is one of the most common behavioral
health issues that develop among first responders, and may evolve alongside depression, anxiety, or
post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to the high stress environment of the job, several other
factors put first responders at increased risk of alcohol abuse.

Common Causes

Every profession comes with its own culture and ways of establishing camaraderie among
colleagues, and in our society many of these social customs involve alcohol. In high stress jobs in
particular, alcohol use is seen as a way of blowing off steam while building bonds with the people
around you who are dealing with the same kind of stress. It is common for people in these positions
to go drinking after a long shift, or spend their days off using alcohol as a way to relax. While some
people may be able to engage in regular social drinking without ever developing a dependence,
others will fall into a battle with addiction. This distinction is not the result of a moral failing or
character flaw, but instead only points to a culmination of environmental and genetic factors that
predispose certain individuals to addiction.

Alcohol is also commonly used as a tool to cope with the emotional repercussions of a job in
emergency services. First responders deal with a wide array of grim and traumatic stressors that
most people never have to encounter. During the course of a year, these professionals are likely to
see graphic bodily injury, acts of violence, suffering, and death. While great satisfaction can come
from helping others in their greatest time of need, constant exposure to the most upsetting and
tragic aspects of life can take a toll on even the most emotionally stable and mentally strong
individuals. First responders may develop several mental health issues in response to this stress
including depression, anxiety, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and secondary-
traumatic stress disorder. These conditions often lead to alcohol abuse.

Because alcohol is our society’s most culturally acceptable drug, it is easily accessible and
even recommended by family and friends during stressful times as a means to cope. Alcohol may
provide temporary relief from symptoms of depression and anxiety by activating the brain’s reward
system and increasing production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that create
a sense of wellbeing and mild euphoria. This feeling is especially intense in the early days of alcohol
abuse, but as time goes on, the body begins to develop a tolerance to alcohol’s effects. A problem
drinker will require much more alcohol to achieve the same effect as the addiction progresses, and
eventually, just to feel normal. For people with a mental health disorder, alcohol use can feel like a
solution, but in reality, will only make it more difficult to experience joy and contentment.

Treatment

First responders with alcohol use disorder are typically high functioning individuals who may
even hide their problem drinking from their loved ones and coworkers for a long period of time.
First responders are very aware of the huge amount of responsibility they carry, and they may even
be able to successfully separate their excessive drinking from their job performance up until a
certain point. Eventually, however, alcohol addiction will permeate every aspect of a person’s life, including relationships, career, finances, and physical health. But for first responders, reaching out
for help to conquer addiction isn’t always a straightforward process.

When anonymously surveyed, many first responders have reported that they felt they would
be treated differently by their superiors if they were to talk openly about seeking treatment for
mental illness or addiction. Others feel that seeking behavioral healthcare will cause their
colleagues to see them as weak or unfit for the job. Because of these stigmas, many professionals in
emergency services suffer in silence with deteriorating mental health and addictions. Additionally,
alcohol addiction can be difficult to discuss when it seems as if everyone else is drinking regularly
and managing to keep it under control. Despite these obstacles, it is imperative that first responders
prioritize their own health and the wellbeing of their loved ones by seeking professional treatment
for addiction and mental illness.

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed
strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigmas may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult.

Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships. By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing. First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating
our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.