What is the Prevalence of Alcohol Abuse Among First Responders?

Emergency and first responders deal with a lot of stress, anxiety, and tragedy on the job. They may use alcohol and drugs as a means to cope with the traumatic experiences or cover up some of the mental health challenges of the job. They are more vulnerable than some people to drug and alcohol abuse, along with PTSD and other mental health issues, simply because they are facing difficult circumstances every day. The job requires a lot of physical and emotional labor, which can burn people out over time. Find out what the prevalence of alcohol abuse is among the first responders and how to find help if a loved one is struggling.

Why it Happens

There is no question that a serious issue exists for people who work in emergency and first responder roles. Exposure to trauma, physical injury, and other things that happen on the job are just part of the deal. However, confronting this reality every single day on the job, on top of long hours, time away from family and loved ones, missed holidays and celebrations, and other issues make it a less than balanced work-life scenario. An estimated 30% of first responders struggle with depression, with this being just an average. Clinical depression is also different than situational depressive episodes that go away after a period of time. Long-term clinical depression can lead to serious, chronic health issues if left untreated. Many first responders suffer from alcohol use disorder and consume large amounts of alcohol off the job to deal with the mental and physical labor involved. 

Higher Rates

The rates of alcohol abuse among first responders, including police officers and EMTs, differ among men and women and professions. Women are more likely to drink in these professions than men to cope with the challenges of the job. Heavy or binge drinking is a smaller percentage but makes up more of the drinking behaviors than for women who drink differently than men. There are about 35% of firefighters who miss work or shifts due to excessive use of alcohol. That is around one-third of firefighters. Unfortunately, this is becoming more common for both male and female firefighters who are working under intense conditions such as brutal physical situations, less support and dealing with criticism or loss when it comes to handling certain events.

Functional Alcoholism

Any person who drinks too much and is getting up to go to work, take care of children and keep going every day is a functioning alcoholic. That means they are doing what needs to be done, to some extent, on a daily basis, but they are still drinking more than they should. It is hard to notice the signs in a person’s life they are drinking too much if they become good at hiding it because they are still functioning at a high level. The link between substance abuse, depression, and other issues play into how people understand and treat addiction in first responders. They bear a huge responsibility and weight. If they tell about their drinking, they may put their jobs on the line. Many will suffer alone, afraid to tell others for fear of reprisal at work. Hiding from others is easier than telling them there is a problem. Some other barriers to admitting a problem exists:

  • Feelings of shame
  • Feeling nobody would believe them
  • Not being able to let go of self-disappointment 
  • Not being sure if they can cope with their career and stay sober
  • Not having family support (or fearing lack of it) when they admit a problem exists

The Start of Healing

It is difficult to tell loved ones and colleagues a drinking problem exists. Within this profession, first responders are less likely to admit to it because they don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want to lose face in front of their colleagues who trust their judgment and their perspective on things. There is fear around how to behave on and off the job. If they drink off the job, they think they are doing fine because it cannot affect their work. The truth is, it creeps into everything eventually. It has an impact on a person’s mentality, their physical body, and ultimately the decisions they make on the job. When they are struggling with addiction, they are going to start making mistakes that may cost lives, eventually. Getting help is necessary for healing so a person can find hope in recovery and maybe even save their career if they choose to. It begins with admitting a problem exists and seeking the right help. 

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