First responders face a set of risk factors that can dramatically increase their odds of turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with the effects of their jobs. Many of these risk factors are shared among all first responders.
No matter if someone is a police officer or a paramedic, all first responders face life-threatening situations in their careers. Police officers can be shot at or attacked, firefighters can suffer severe burns and injuries, and EMT’s and paramedics bear witness to others fighting for their lives on a regular basis. These jobs are not for the faint of heart, as they require a steady hand and excellent decision-making skills, however at the end of the day, first responders are humans, too. Knowing that they could be fatally injured at any time can weigh heavy on their shoulders, leading to all sorts of mental and emotional problems such as anxiety and depression.
Long, unusual hours
When the rest of the world goes to sleep, first responders are still on the job and ready to act at a moment’s notice. Not only do all first responders take on non-traditional shifts (such as the night shift or a 3pm-11pm shift, for example), but they also do not always get to clock out right when their shift is up. Instead, they can go home when the emergency situation they have tended to has resolved. Odd hours such as these can make it hard to maintain a good diet, get enough rest, or engage in hobbies or activities. When these basic needs are not fulfilled, it can be easy for symptoms of depression or other mood disorders to set in.
Injury and loss
It is not unusual for any type of first responder to suffer an injury while on the job. It is also not unusual to experience loss of life for these individuals. All of this comes with the duty of being a first responder. However, being personally injured can lead to the need for surgery, physical therapy, time off of work, etc. In the event where medication is prescribed to manage pain caused by an injury, some first responders end up abusing that medication simply because of how addictive it can be. On the other hand, first responders see and experience a great deal of loss both on the streets and within their own networks of co-workers. The grief that comes from the loss of a loved one can be so upsetting that first responders may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.
These risk factors can all increase a first responder’s risk factor for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, which can then increase their likelihood of abusing drugs or alcohol.
Most Abused Substances
In general, alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances in the country. American culture has accepted alcohol as something that should be present at all types of events and at dinner tables everywhere. The cultural acceptance of alcohol makes it appear as a non-threatening substance, however that is far from the truth. In police, fire, and ambulance stations, there is a thick culture of drinking. It is almost expected for first responders to go out and have some drinks after work or to encourage one another to have a drink to help ease the stress of a painful day. And even though more women than ever before are working in first responder positions, these stations are often soaked in a “boys’ club” type culture. This means that to be accepted, you have to fit in. And, if you don’t drink, fitting in can be much harder.
In addition to the peer pressure within these communities of first responders is the fact that being a first responder is emotionally taxing. The easiest way to stop thinking about work (and the fastest) is to drink. Unfortunately, many first responders turn to the bottle in an effort to self-medicate the effects they are feeling from their job.
Binge drinking, in particular, is common among first responders. This is due to several factors, one of which includes their work schedule. For example, a firefighter might work a handful of days in a row or a police officer might be pulling extra overtime. When the time comes for a few days off, binge drinking can occur because first responders do not need to be on the clock.
As previously mentioned, first responders can easily suffer an injury on the job. A police officer can be shot, a firefighter can suffer severe burns, and an EMT or paramedic can experience physical injury related to the handling of patients. When a first responder suffers an injury, there is an increased risk for that first responder to abuse prescription drugs. That does not mean all first responders abuse prescription drugs, rather it highlights the fact that when in pain, people can make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t, such as abusing a prescription painkiller to cope with their injuries.
EMT’s and paramedics in particular are able to access a handful of different prescription drugs in the event they need to administer one or more of them to a patient. For example, ambulances carry fentanyl and/or morphine, as well as ativan or other benzodiazepine medication used to calm patients down if necessary. These medications are highly addictive and highly sought after because of the effects they produce. Since EMT’s and paramedics have complete access to these prescriptions, it heightens their chances of using them when anxious, stressed out, or in emotional distress. But, EMT’s and paramedics are not the only first responders who have access to prescription drugs, as police officers often confiscate these types of substances from civilians during arrests. If they participate in drug take back programs, police officers also have access to the prescription drug boxes that are located at the station. For all first responders, access to prescription medications is what increases their rates of substance abuse.
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