First Responders: Coping with PTSD and Stress while Helping Others
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First Responders: Coping with PTSD and Stress while Helping Others

“We can all help prevent suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call 1-800-273-8255.”

Those who suffer from anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sometimes turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope. This can lead to substance abuse, addiction, or suicide. Mental health conditions and addiction can affect anyone, including first responders who are committed to helping others in time of need. These people protect us when we are in danger and respond quickly to emergencies and critical situations. Unfortunately, many in this profession do not seek help due to the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction.  

Ending the Stigma

The term, “first responders,” refers to police, firefighters, search and rescue personnel, military, mental health workers, emergency dispatchers, and emergency and paramedical teams. Sadly, shame and stigma surround mental health within professions that prioritize bravery and toughness. Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay says, “They see things that none of us really ever want to see or have to experience. So to know that they’re going from call to call to call that can really add up and take such a huge toll on them.” (Elizabeth Fry, FOX 13 News, 2018).

According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization that advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout our society, first responders are at higher risk of dying by suicide than in the line of duty. “In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides. In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty.”

Common Stressors for First Responders

Our first responders in the police, fire, and EMS professions need to be ready for anything, at any time. They live with a fear that something will happen that they cannot control. The weight of the responsibility they carry can be crushing. Fear sometimes needs to be buried in order for first responders to perform their job.

The skills they have to do their job effectively needs to be nurtured and constantly challenged. To ensure competence, when a skill is learned, it needs to re-learned at every available moment. There is always something new to perfect. “The training is the foundation that everything else depends upon. Having the skills to perform embedded in you through repetition helps when the real deal comes your way.” (Michael Morse, Fire Rescue 1, 2015).

First responders mentally prepare themselves to face death, disfigurement, and disease, while at work and off duty. It becomes the “norm” to them and it eats away at their humanity and compassion. The feeling of impending doom and despair will always be with them, consciously or subconsciously.

The toughest among first responders are actually not tough at all. They disguise their hurt in humor. Some first responders joke about the dead and make small talk of the mentally unstable as a way to cope with what they face on a daily basis.

Trauma-Related Substance Abuse

People who experience PTSD or other mental health condition may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate, which can result in destructive behavior, disruption with job performance, trouble with loved ones, severe health complications and death. Individuals who experience trauma often use drugs or alcohol to:

  • Fall asleep to due disruptive sleep patterns caused by PTSD
  • Avoid traumatic memories or flashbacks
  • Forget about problems
  • Deal with mood disturbances caused by PTSD
  • Numb emotions

Substance use disorders and PTSD often co-occur and can be treated as a dual diagnosis. Those who suffer from PTSD might have flashbacks and repeatedly relive the event. They may avoid certain places or people and can be easily startled and have angry outbursts.

Alcohol is one of the most commonly used substances in individuals who develop PTSD due to its central nervous system depressant effects, its availability, and acceptance across every level of society. Developing PTSD is a risk factor for developing a substance use disorder or addiction, and having a pre-existing substance abuse problem or addiction is a risk factor for the development of PTSD.

Mental health is particularly important to study in the context of disasters, because often in tragic events, loved ones are lost suddenly, horrifically, and unexpectedly.

Treatment for Addiction

It can be difficult to ask for help, and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Addiction is isolating, but you are not alone. Do not let the stigma surrounding PTSD and addiction interfere with getting help. If you or a loved one is suffering from  PTSD and a substance use disorder or addiction, get help now. PTSD and a co-occurring substance use disorder or addiction is treatable and recovery is possible.

Both conditions must be treated simultaneously as a dual diagnosis for the best results in recovery. Treatment is tailored to each person’s unique needs. Make the life-saving decision to get help today. While there is no cure for addiction, it is treatable and recovery is possible.

Daylight Recovery Services takes a holistic approach to substance abuse and co-occurring disorder treatment to address the physical, psychological, and spiritual facets of addiction and recovery. We ensure clients emerge from our facility with the proper tools and confidence in their ability to lead a healthy, enjoyable life. If you or someone you love is ready to break free of the bondage of addiction, contact one of our recovery experts today at 1-833-2DAYLIGHT.

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