First responders are often putting themselves at risk without thinking about what they are doing. Constant exposure to trauma and life-threatening situations puts them under a lot of stress day in and day out. There are aspects of the job that contributes to mental health issues over the long term. First responders are susceptible to substance abuse and mental health challenges because there is difficulty in finding a balance between the negative issues they face and the reality outside the job. What they do can color how they feel about themselves or see themselves in the world. Over time, this can turn into substance abuse and mental health issues that impact them over time.
Culture of Silence
Mental health disorders are being talked about more openly now than they used to be among the first responders. It is still difficult to discuss mental health and substance abuse on the job with others because of fear of not fitting in with their job any longer. They may not realize others are struggling like they are. As awareness spreads, those who are exposed to different treatments can thrive in different contexts better than those who receive no treatment at all. The impact of silence on people in these professions keeps them from being able to share their difficulty with others who are also struggling. Silence can be a killer in many cases, as it drives mental health and substance abuse issues.
The stigma of people who live with mental health symptoms means they are not always getting the help they need. People in helper professions, especially first responders, believe the treatment could assist in helping the person live a balanced life. Treatment can help overcome stigma and open up the conversation around the issues they face. Stigma can increase self-judgment and depressive symptoms, including low self-esteem. People may be more likely to self-medicate mental health symptoms through drugs or alcohol rather than seek help if they feel their issues are not valid or important to loved ones. The more support a person has, the less likely they are to turn to alcohol or drugs. This depends on the person but they may still turn to this if they feel peer pressure or are unable to navigate mental and physical health needs without using substances.
Common Mental Health Issues
Law enforcement officers, paramedics, and other first responders must see some of the hardest things there are to see in the known world. Outside of war, they experience trauma on a daily basis. They are thrown into the fire, literally, and experience the emotional and physical damages of accidents, abuse, threats, violence, stress, and even the inability to save people who are in precarious situations. This takes an emotional toll on anyone over time. There is no ‘good way’ to cope with the long fits, working with others who struggle, meeting the challenges of raising a family, and pursuing peace and harmony in their lives. The burnout rate is very high in these professions for a reason. Some common mental health issues they may face include:
- PTSD: not all people have the same symptoms who have this disorder. The experiences that could happen are known to trigger different types of PTSD like re-experiencing trauma, avoidance, and hyperarousal
- Anxiety: generally six months or longer of experiencing anxiety symptoms qualifies as a true diagnosis clinically speaking. The symptoms will vary but people often struggle with panic, anxiety, social anxiety, or phobia disorders in this category and sometimes cannot function well as a result
- Depression: feeling sad or down for long periods of time, crying without ceasing, or not being able to shake feelings of loss, hopelessness, and fear are all signs of depressive disorder
- Co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders are not uncommon for first responders
There are many options for the treatment of mental health and addiction issues in first responders. The issue they are commonly diagnosed with includes mental health, personality disorders, PTSD, and complex illnesses that need a multidimensional approach. People in these situations may benefit from inpatient treatment programs, but they may be able to attend an intensive outpatient program (IOP) that is focused on delivering to them the tools and resources they need to feel successful in recovery.
Lifesaving tools and resources are available for first responders and people who work in those professions. They are seeing and experiencing life in another world. They are out helping people in crisis and will never likely reap any reward from it as a result. The reward they get is doing a service for others that is sometimes thankless and feels difficult because of how it impacts their brains and bodies. The key is to find help from the right program that supports first responders and understands the impact of trauma on their brains and bodies while providing the services they need to heal. This winning combination can help first responders get back on their feet and begin the journey of discovering hope after addiction.
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