First Responders and Addiction Treatment

Anyone can suffer from addiction to alcohol or drugs, and first responders are no exception to the rule. They work in a fast-paced, emotionally charged, and adrenaline-fueled industry that can wear a person down. Because first responders are identified as heroes and helpers, there is a negative stigma over them suffering from addiction. Therefore, it may be difficult to get counseling for first responders. 

What Stressors Do First Responders Experience?

Being Placed in Life or Death Situations

Being a first responder comes with many stressful challenges that no other profession comes with. One of these stressful challenges is being placed in life or death situations. For example, police officers put their life on the line every time they encounter a criminal or civilian that has a weapon. On the other hand, firefighters put their life on the line every time they enter a building or area that is encompassed in a deadly fire. 

When placed in life or death situations like these, every decision you make could be the difference between living and dying. Knowing that they have to put their lives on the line every time they go to work is not only stressful for the first responders, but it is also stressful for the families of the first responders.

Dealing With Hazards At Work

Another stressor that first responders have to deal with is dealing with hazards at work. For example, a police officer or firefighter may have to touch other people with infectious diseases or conditions due to the harmful conditions that they were in. This is particularly true for Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) and paramedics. 

Lifting Heavy Equipment Each Day At Work

First responders also often have to deal with the stress of lifting heavy equipment every day. Firefighters, in particular, have to wear a heavy fire-resistant suit and carry heavy fire hoses and equipment to each fire that they attend. EMTs also often must carry large equipment, such as stretchers, each day that they are on the front lines. 

Working Long Hours

Working long hours each day on a small salary is also a very stressful experience for many first responders. This is especially true since first responders are always on call.

Being Held to a Higher Moral Standard Than the Common Man

Another stressor of first responders is being held to a high moral standard. Because first responders are viewed as heroes and representatives of the law, dealing with any personal struggles, such as addiction, can be embarrassing. This is especially true since addiction has so many negative connotations associated with it. 

Dealing with a serious personal issue such as addiction can also cause first responders to fear of losing their jobs, which for many, is the ultimate stressor. 

Trauma One Experiences as a First Responder

First responders go through countless traumatic experiences throughout their careers. For example, many police officers, firefighters, and/or EMTs have been up close and personal with a dead body before. This traumatic experience could occur because of a car accident or shooting, a fire, or someone who did not make it out of the ambulance alive. Either way, this life experience alone could scar someone for life.

Firefighters have to go through the traumatic experience of seeing a helpless human being trapped in a fire. EMTs and paramedics, on the other hand, have to go through the traumatic experience of seeing helpless ill people that are on the brink of death every day.

How First Responders Tend to Cope With Trauma

Like all humans, first responders go through the initial trauma response of fight or flight. This instinctual response often leads to physiological symptoms such as an elevated heart rate and an increase in blood pressure. 

Because first responders are trained to respond to stressful emergencies regardless of their instinctual response, trauma can initially give them a feeling of being in overdrive. Once this initial feeling of overdrive to complete the mission at hand wears off, the trauma that first responders experience can cause them to suffer from sleep issues, a loss of appetite, extreme daytime fatigue, irritability, anxiety, and impatience. 

To cope with the effects of trauma, many first responders will rely on their defense mechanisms to get by rather than seek treatment. The three most common defense mechanisms that first responders utilize to cope with trauma are stoicism, depersonalization, and derealization. While these coping mechanisms will help first responders function with their trauma at first, depending on these defense mechanisms to get by will eventually lead to burnout and delayed PTSD. 

Behavioral Health of First Responders

Working long hours in a high-intensity, stressful job that exposes you to the hazards of this world, along with traumatic experiences like death could cause many first responders to experience mood swings and other signs of poor behavioral health. This is especially true if they are never given time to process the trauma that they experience. In fact, according to a study, 69% of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel have never had enough time to recover between traumatic events. 

Mental Health of First Responders

According to a study done by the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2017, more police officers and firefighters die by suicide than in the line of duty. This same study also showed that police officers and firefighters are five times more likely to experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression than the general public. 

Furthermore, a national survey done by the University of Phoenix found that 85% of the first responders that the University surveyed experienced symptoms related to mental health issues. In fact, 34% of the first responders that the University surveyed had already received a formal mental disorder diagnosis. 

Of these diagnoses, more than ¼ of the first responders were diagnosed with depression. 1/10 of the first responders were diagnosed with PTSD, and 46% of the first responders suffered from anxiety. Based on these statistics alone, it is apparent that mental health is a serious issue among our first responders that need to be addressed through some sort of mental health first responder program. This is particularly true when it comes to the following conditions.


According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 36% of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel suffer from depression, and 72% of Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) suffer from sleep deprivation. 

According to another study, numerous emergency medical services personnel that worked during major traumatic events in history suffer from clinical depression. For example, 21.4% of medical workers that responded to the great East Japanese Earthquake in 2011 were diagnosed with clinical depression. 

Also, after 9/11, 24.7% of police officers were reported to be suffering from depression. 47.7% of police officers were reported to be suffering from both depression and anxiety. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common mental health disorders that first responders experience. According to SAMHSA, more than 20% of EMTs suffer from PTSD. This is partially because many first responders do not seek treatment for their trauma when they first experience it. Thus, as stated earlier, delayed trauma turns into PTSD. In fact, according to a literature review, more than 50% of firefighter deaths are because of stress and exhaustion. 

Responding to traumatic historical events also causes more first responders to develop PTSD. For example, in a study done after Hurricane Katrina, between 7 – 19% of police officers experienced PTSD. Similarly, after 9/11, 11% of police responders had increased levels of PTSD. 34.8% of 9/11 police responders that later suffered poor health conditions that did not allow them to work experienced high levels of PTSD and 50.7% of 9/11 police responders that never had their mental health needs met suffered from severe PTSD. 

Suicidal Thoughts

In a national sample of firefighters, those suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms had 5.2% higher odds of attempting suicide during their firefighting career. According to a literature review, firefighters that simultaneously have emergency medical services careers are 6 times more likely to attempt suicide than those that only have firefighting careers.

According to that same literature review, 28% of emergency medical service professionals felt life was worthless throughout their lifetime, 10.4% of emergency medical services personnel have had serious suicidal thoughts, and 3.1% of emergency medical services personnel have attempted suicide before.  

Studies also show that police officers that report feeling burnt out at work are 117% more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts than those that do not report feeling burnt out. In fact, in 2016, the Police Suicide Prevention Program titled, “The Badge of Life,” reported that close to 108 police officers lost their lives to suicide. Respectively, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimated that 113 firefighters and paramedics lost their lives to suicide in 2015. 

First Responders That Suffer From Addiction 

In a 2010 study done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism on police officers that work in urban areas, 11% of the male officers and 16% of the female officers had a risky use level of alcohol. 

The US Firefighters Association (USFA) estimates that as many as 10% of firefighters have a risky relationship with drugs. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health states that 29% of firefighters engage in risky use of alcohol, and 10% of firefighters engage in risky use of prescription medications. A 2017 survey even says that drinking alcohol is the second leading coping mechanism for firefighters.

Overall, more emergency medical professionals report to suffering from addiction disorders than firefighters and police officers. This partly due to the easy access that emergency medical professionals have to medications. 

First Responders and Addiction Treatment

For this specialty group of people, we offer addiction services and mental health services, along with PTSD treatment and trauma therapy. Regardless of whether you are a first responder that is active or still on-the-job, we are confident that the right first responder program can change the course of your addiction. Furthermore, counseling for first responders can get you back on the right track to saving lives and helping other people in need as a respected professional and admired hero.

Because of the stress and danger of their jobs, we tend to see a lot of rescue workers come in as clients. At Discovery Institute, we recognize that they need specialized help for the situations they have been in, and will continue to be in, once they complete the program.

We encourage all first responders to contact us for help, even though they are the ones who usually do the helping.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by The Discovery Institute