Why Sleep Deprivation Can Be a Trigger for Substance Use in Firefighters

The health of firefighters should not be on the line to help those they serve. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens because they deal with everything from sleep deprivation to extremely difficult circumstances on the job. Sleep deprivation is medically linked to higher rates of heart attack, cancer, and mental health issues. Prevention is key but, when firefighters work the front lines, it is hard to deal with in a healthy way. Find out why sleep deprivation can be a trigger for substance use in firefighters and how to help them navigate it in a healthy way.

Sleep Matters

Sleep disorders are unfortunately common among firefighters. Many of them have no awareness they are not sleeping well, they just know they are tired during the day. Once the problem is acknowledged, solutions can be implemented including lowering risks of long-term health consequences. They may also be able to deal with issues around addiction or mental health that arise when they cannot get proper sleep. Chronic sleep loss should not be part of any job. It ends up taking people out of their jobs earlier, gives them chronic conditions, inflames addictive behaviors to cope with lack of sleep, and also shortens the life span. Due to the exacerbation of symptoms in the body around the heart, it can also be lethal over time. Firefighters can find ways to maximize better sleep even while working a difficult job.

Cancer and Cardiac Arrest

When a firefighter gets cancer, many people think it is part of the global statistic of cancers people just seemingly get for unknown reasons. Unfortunately, the likelihood for them goes up when they are not getting enough sleep. Women have an increased risk of breast cancer and men an increased risk of prostate cancer when they don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. People who sleep less than six hours per night before the diagnosis are one and a half times more likely to die from it than those who sleep seven to eight hours per night. It is hard to think of a lack of sleep as a carcinogen but it really is not healthy. This on top of scrolling through social media, watching television to decompress, or staying up unable to sleep, a firefighter can have lots of health consequences to their brains and bodies.

Risk of Substance Use

Sleep deprivation puts the body in a fight-or-flight mode. This means the body is at risk of developing things like substance use disorders and chronic mental health conditions over time. Firefighters also experience a lot of trauma that keeps them up at night, unable to sleep. They may experience anxiety and fear and other things that keep them from coping positively with their sleep environment and at work. Poor health leads to poor sleep, which leads to triggers of wanting to use to deal with the reasons they are not sleeping. If sleep deprivation is the main issue then they may use drugs to stay awake longer or fall asleep at night and risk abuse of these medications and drugs meant for short-term use only.

Stepping Towards Improvement

A silent epidemic has been settling in for people in the fire service. Sleep deprivation is nothing to laugh at. There are better ways to get sleep. Sleep is not equated with how much or how hard a person works. We are a nation addicted to staying awake. Rest does not make for a poor work ethic. Some things that firefighters can do are simple and others are more challenging to get them on the track to success.

Departmental Responsibility

Every fire department should recognize the need for adequate sleep to keep people feeling rested and well. Performance issues are challenging to a firefighter’s strength and agility on the job. They should be focused more on preventive measures and offering places to catch some rest that are peaceful and quiet for firefighters.

Running Assessments

Assessing a fire department’s ability to get enough sleep is important. This helps gather anonymous data to see how far-reaching the problem might be. Implementing solutions is easier if a department understands the needs of its firefighters on the job.

Naps on Duty

Since firefighters often stay at the station for long periods of time, they should be able to take naps and rest as needed. It can make a positive difference in the reflexes of someone rested versus exhausted. Resources should be made available and places to sleep that are comfortable and peaceful. Every person off duty at that moment should be allowed room to rest and sleep when needed.

Staying awake when tired is not a virtue that needs to continue in firefighter circles. However, lasting change is difficult. On a personal level, individual firefighters can contact a sleep expert, addiction, or mental health specialist who understand their stress and call of duty to help them find better ways to sleep. When they are well-rested, their crew is more likely to be rested as well when they don’t carry an extra load. When one suffers, everyone does, so it is best to help yourself and offer support to others while advocating for lasting change that will make being more rested the norm for firefighters across the nation.

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