First Responders and Addiction: Addressing the Needs of Our Heroes
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First Responders and Addiction: Addressing the Needs of Our Heroes

Written By Legacy Healing Center - Jul 10 2019

First Responders and Addiction: Addressing the Needs of Our Heroes

Table of Contents

Police officers, firefighters, and paramedics are amongst the most heroic protectors of our communities. These brave men and women deal with high levels of trauma and stress in their day-to-day work environment. So, what about first responders and addiction?

This exposure to incomprehensible levels of traumatic events and stress increases their risk of developing a mental health and/or substance abuse disorders. First responders have to mitigate dangerous situations daily. Despite professional training, the overall stress of this unique occupation can take a toll on their mental health.

From lengthy shifts, stressful job demands, traumatic events, and the pressures that naturally arise from responding to emergencies, it is not uncommon for first responders to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and even depression.

If left untreated or undiagnosed, adverse mental health disorders may provoke first responders to self medicate with drugs and/or alcohol to cope with their pain. First responders can develop an addiction in this way. The stigmas and cultures, surrounding the job of a first responder, can make these individuals more resistant to seeking treatment – further propelling the problem.

Many first responders engage in social drinking and never develop a full dependency. However, for those that do – professional help is available. Legacy Healing Detox in Margate, Fl., offers solutions for the treatment among first responders with an addiction. We can help with mental health and substance use disorders.

Why Are First Responders Vulnerable to Addiction?

The occupation of being a first responder requires the individual to confront violence, serious injuries, and even death daily. This leads many emergency personals feeling unbalanced and isolated – further making these individuals more susceptible to substance abuse disorder than the rest of the general population. Legacy Healing Center offers specialized addiction treatment for first responders and union workers.

People employed in these professions often turn to alcohol cope and mask the stress of their occupation. Firefighters, police officers, and EMT’s may often turn to alcohol to promote social interaction and to unwind from a stressful or traumatic day. In addition to the intense pressures of their occupations, first responders have reported drinking for other reasons such as maintaining a chaotic schedule, camaraderie, peer support, and managing stress.

Stressful Work Environment

Under any circumstance, stresses increase vulnerability for first responders to develop an addiction. First responders face a variety of stressful situations and environments daily. Traumatic work situations may include being in a dangerous situation like walking into a fiery building, having to shoot at a suspect, witnessing a horrible event or crime, and even witnessing a tragic injury, accident, or even death.

Some first responders may turn to alcohol or other substances to ease the tension of a stressful day. Acute and chronic stress may lead first responders to seek alternative coping strategies by self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol.

Societal Pressures that Can Cause Addiction in First Responders

As depicted on television and in movies, many emergency responders head to the local bar after a hard day of work to unwind and let off some steam. For instance, one study2 reported that police work is a culture that views heavy or binge drinking as acceptable behavior.

Binge drinking is typically classified as periods of excessive alcohol consumption intending to achieve intoxication. For some first responders, this may be a retreat after a hard day’s work and because it is deemed socially acceptable – given the circumstances of their stressful occupation.

Underlying Mental Health Disorders

Emergency responders such as firefighters, police officers, and paramedics are regularly exposed to traumatic and stressful events. This type of daily stress makes these individuals vulnerable to developing a stress-related mental health disorder.

The cultural job pressures to keep everything together may prevent first responders from seeking help for behavioral health issues. Undiagnosed and untreated behavioral health disorders such as PTSD and acute stress disorder may lead first responders to cope with drugs or alcohol.

First Responders, addiction, and Co-Occurring Disorders

In regards to stress-related mental health disorders, first responders are predisposed at exceptionally high risk for developing one of these behavioral health disorders. There are several different kinds of stress-related mental health disorders. However, PTSD and acute stress disorder are most commonly found among the community of first responders.

The American Psychiatric Association1 defines PTSD as a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.

PTSD is a chronic response to stress or trauma. Acute stress disorder is diagnosed when an individual displays PTSD-like symptoms for a month or less after experiencing a stressful or traumatic event. For many first responders, symptoms of acute stress disorder will not dissipate and will eventually turn into PTSD.

It is critical to remember that an individual does not have to be directly involved with a traumatic event to experience PTSD – it is possible for the individual to display symptoms of PTSD by merely witnessing any form of trauma. Some of the most common traumatic events first responders experience are:


  • Vehicle, airplane, boat, or train accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Extremely violent situations
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Mass shootings
  • Witnessing sexual abuse
  • Acts of war/riots
  • Being present during a situation that presents the potential for bodily harm/danger

How is PTSD Diagnosed

Medical professionals are trained to diagnose individuals who have PTSD. There are many signs and symptoms of PTSD. Untreated and undiagnosed PTSD may lead to excessive drug/alcohol consumption and ultimately, substance abuse disorder to cope with extremely stressful situations. Common symptoms of PTSD may include the following:

  • Depression/Hopelessness
  • Reliving a past traumatic/stressful event
  • Flashbacks, nightmares, recurring dreams
  • Anxiety when experiencing people, places, and things that remind the individual of the trauma
  • Hypervigilance
  • Lack of focus
  • Memory loss
  • Social isolation
  • Depersonalization
  • Dissociative episodes
  • Loss of motivation
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as binge drinking/drug use
  • Lack of emotional control
  • Suicidal ideation

The common misconception in regards to PTSD is that the symptoms of this disorder will manifest immediately after experiencing trauma. PTSD symptoms may not develop for several weeks, months, and maybe even years after the event has occurred.

This may be especially true with first responders. The accumulation of several traumatic experiences, in which first responders are placed in the position to remain calm and act accordingly during the events, may not manifest until the individual reaches a boiling point. First responders may experience a flashback of a previous traumatic situation during a present stressor which can ultimately provoke symptoms of PTSD.

Recent studies show 15-30% of first responders are reported to have been diagnosed with PTSD. Research3 also suggests that 20% of first responders that struggle with PTSD have a substance abuse disorder as well.

Emergency responders that suffer from intense flashbacks, nightmares, and symptoms of PTSD are at a much higher risk of abusing drugs and alcohol than those individuals who have PTSD but are not exposed to recurrent traumatic and stressful events.

Help for First Responders Struggling With Addiction Disorders and Mental Health

There are many available options for first responders to receive treatment for substance abuse issues and co-occurring disorders. To properly treat an individual suffering from co-occurring disorders, it is vital that the treatment plan incorporates therapy for substance abuse issues as well as any underlying mental health issues concurrently.

First and foremost, detox or drug and alcohol detoxification is the first process of ridding the body of addictive substances. The purpose of drug and alcohol detoxification is to safely & effectively manage withdrawal symptoms when an individual decides to discontinue their usage.

Detoxification for First Responders with an Addiction

Detoxification can vary in length of time. Depending on the substances used, length of usage, age, physical health status, and more. Legacy Healing Detox’s medical professionals are experts at determining the length of stay and detox procedure for each individual.

Next, trained professionals such as physicians and psychologists, and intake workers will evaluate and assess the patient at all levels. During this phase, a proper diagnosis is given, and the Legacy team will construct a customized treatment plan for the first responder – addressing any mental health disorders alongside the current substance abuse issues.

Legacy Healing Detox is a comprehensive addiction treatment and behavioral health provider based on an individualized client-centered approach, designed to build hope, create a stable support network to achieve long-term health and healing.

We know from personal experience that our holistic healing approach can help people to not only deal with addiction but to thrive in life, free from toxic substances and the lifestyle compromises that come with them.

Here at Legacy, our mission is to offer a gateway to a better life for anyone suffering from active addiction – especially our heroic first responders. Our holistic approach to healing is tailor-made to each individual who enters our community, offering hope, ongoing support, and a new opportunity to thrive. Our vision is to help every person who registers with our program to find his or her way to long-term recovery. And our promise to our clients is a safe and nurturing environment conducive to forgiveness and healing that ultimately transforms the addicted self to the authentic self, that is required to create a sober identity.



  1. 1American Psychiatric Association. (2017). Reviewed by Parekh, R. M.D., M.P.H. What is PTSD? Accessed July 10th 2019.
  2. 2Ballenger, J. F. PhD, Best, S.R. PhD, Metzler, T.J. MA, et. al. (2011). Patterns and Predictors of Alcohol Use in Male and Female Urban Police Officers. American Journal of Addiction. Accessed July 10th 2019.
  3. 3Rahman, F. (2016). New study estimates 20 percent of firefighters, paramedics have PTSD. EMS1. Accessed July 10th 2019.

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