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Behavioral Health Conditions in First Responders

Emergency Florida first responders are the first people to deal with events in Florida on an emergency scene. These responders include:

  • Police officers
  • Firefighters
  • Paramedics and EMTs
  • Search and Rescue personnel
  • Other Emergency Medical Services

The scene could involve a car accident, a house fire, personal injury, assault, or gunfire. Florida first responders are even responsible for life or death decisions that don’t involve their own well-being.

First responders have constant exposure to real-life situations, which can be devastating over the course of their careers. These situations expose first responders to events that other professions don’t typically experience, even doctors. For example, first responders often see harrowing scenes that become ingrained in their memory.

Emergency responders are responsible for running in when everyone else runs out. These events can mark the image of what workers initially believe these careers entail.

All of the events an EMT, police officer, or firefighter experiences can lead to the development of mental health disorders and substance use disorders. In fact, a study done about suicide in the general population reports that firefighters have the highest suicide attempts and ideation rates.

The idea of suicide stems from the daily events a first responder faces. Florida first responders are essential to the community. They’re the first to offer emotional and physical support to victims on the scene. They’re also the first who can provide immediate life-saving attention. Ironically, these same events are the ones that cause behavioral health disorders.

Common Risk Factors for First Responders

One of the most common risk factors of being a part of the Florida first responders is the pace of work. These men and women work long shifts—often 24-hours or longer—especially when working as a firefighter.

The amount of work EMS (emergency medical services) professionals endure is often traumatic, as they don’t have time to recover between events. It’s almost as if they need constant strength and endurance just to complete a shift.

Having a career in firefighting can be draining. Firefighters repeatedly expose themselves to unpleasant events. On top of that, firefighters must follow erratic sleep schedules that pose significant risks to their mental health.

Work is especially draining for firefighters that also work as EMS professionals. Florida first responders know this firsthand as Florida is one of the states in which firefighters also work EMS jobs.

Dealing with such draining and stressful work can make first responders contemplate suicide as they start to feel that life isn’t worth living. This is especially true for first responders who repeatedly encounter life or death events.

Police officers are another group of career professionals that experience an increase in mental illness risks. This is also due to the dangerous nature of their career. Police officers repeatedly receive distressing calls that force them to experience critical incidents, environmental hazards, and traumatic events.

The threat of physical harm is imminent, but these professionals are more likely to witness:

  • Murder
  • Suicide
  • Domestic violence
  • Drug use

Did the Occupation Cause Substance Abuse?

Emergency Florida first responders experience grief, death, injury, and many other life-altering events while also working endless hours and frequent shifts. Experiencing these events can result in a lack of sleep, physical and personal hardships, and a threat to personal safety. Each of these events can result in a negative experience in the workplace.

It’s even harder for Florida first responders to recover from the horrid events that they experience at work due to the fact that many of these events don’t end. Even when Florida first responders are feeling bouts of depression, PTSD, or thoughts of suicide, their careers don’t stop.

Paramedics and EMTs

Paramedics and EMTs are often responsible for life-saving decisions at scenes of emergency. For example, paramedics and EMTs attend to emergency scenes where there is fire, car accidents, shootings or personal injuries, or anything that may require a life-saving decision.

Paramedics and EMTs are also responsible for patients in drug overdoses where they have to decide a method of treatment.

Firefighters

Firefighters are at an even greater risk for personal injury as they’re responsible for running into a burning building or house fire. Firefighters are also at physical risk of smoke inhalation, lung damage, and severe burns.

Also responsible for life-saving decisions, firefighters try to safely remove families or individuals from building fires. These men and women work 24-hour shifts, often back-to-back, with countless hours of traumatic calls. These events can lead individuals to develop co-occurring conditions.

Police Officers

Similar to firefighters, police officers deal with a daily amount of stress and trauma in their line of work. Policemen and women often attend the same emergency scenes that firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs must attend to. They become victims of the same trauma that all the other EMS professionals face. In fact, they’re susceptible to greater harm as they control active scenes such as shootings.

Working these occupations causes some people to start abusing substances to cope. Still, for Florida first responders, addiction is mostly linked to their personal lives and past occurrences. This can include family history.

What Are the Most Common Behavioral Health Conditions?

Listed below are some of the behavioral health conditions that Florida first responders experience the most and the reasons why they’ve become so common:

  • Reports show that depression is often the first mental health disorder that emergency responders receive.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stems from multiple events that happen back to back.
  • Suicide happens when one cannot escape past memories or events.
  • Anxiety stems from encountering many tragic/traumatic events.
  • Alcohol use is the second leading coping strategy among first responders.
  • Drug abuse is highest among paramedics and EMTs compared to other EMS professions.
  • Women who work as first responders tend to pick up smoking more often than men who work as first responders.
  • Working 24-hour or longer shifts often causes sleep deprivation, which then can lead to substance abuse or behavioral or mental health disorders.

Challenges First Responders Face

Many people view EMS professionals as strong and fearless. They run into gunfire, smoke, building fires, and more all day long, but they’re still human. Still, these professionals are capable of falling victim to behavioral health disorders.

In fact, EMS professionals are more susceptible to these health disorders than the general population. Some may find this ironic as the events mentioned above display the actions of heroic figures and workers.

What one may find even more ironic in the fight against mental health, is that emergency Florida first responders actually face multiple barriers in finding help. The cost of treatment is expensive, and first responders receive little outside help.

Furthermore, there is a stigma attached to the title of a first responder. The fear of being seen as weak or even resigning from a position as a first responder keeps many from seeking help. This can lead an individual to suffer from substance or alcohol abuse.

Research data reports that personal trauma and loss prior to a disaster are associated with the increased risk of mental health disorders. All individuals will have to deal with personal issues or loss at one time or another, including Florida first responders. In fact, first responders may be more likely to develop mental health disorders by this criteria since they endure more in a day than the regular individual. First responders are not only dealing with personal issues but other people’s issues all day.

Substance Abuse vs. Alcohol Abuse

EMS professionals are at high risk for drug use and are at an even higher risk when this drug use is associated with alcohol. Many EMS professionals turn to substance abuse when they experience burnout at work.

Job burnout is work-related stress that causes a physical or emotional state of exhaustion. It makes one feel so physically and mentally tired that they have a reduced sense of accomplishment and feel a loss of personal identity.

When a worker experiences burnout, he or she is more likely to consider suicide. Unfortunately, burnout and suicidal thoughts are two things that are common amongst emergency first responders.

Getting an emergency responder to consider receiving help for contemplating suicide can be difficult. An emergency responder is usually the one administering aid and controlling the scene, not receiving help.

Due to the stress emergency responders encounter on a daily basis, it’s common when these individuals develop co-occurring disorders. A co-occurring disorder occurs when someone simultaneously suffers from a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder.

Risk Levels for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Amongst First Responders

If your substance use interferes with your ability to perform at work, in school, or in social relationships, then you may suffer from an alcohol or drug addiction. Mental health disorders tend to be diagnosed based on family history or behavior during stressful events, such as those experienced daily by EMS professionals.

Police officers and firemen are at an especially high risk for drug abuse. This is because they have easy access to the illegal drugs brought in from drug busts and overdose calls.

Drug abuse is also more common among paramedics than some might assume. This is because paramedics have more access to potent and addictive prescription meds. Paramedics and policemen are also more prone to drug abuse because they handle stress-related events multiple times a day. Plus they are able to easily get their fix through others’ drugs.

First responders also often abuse alcohol. Alcohol offers a chance to relax and relieve the stresses of the day. It also causes a lot of EMS professionals to binge drink or drive under the influence. Emergency Florida first responders are at great risk of developing an alcohol addiction following the critical accidents they witness daily.

Treatment and Recovery

Treatment for mental health disorders includes individual therapy, group therapy, 12-step programs, family therapy, detoxification, and outpatient or inpatient treatment centers.

Individual Therapy

Individual therapy is therapy that occurs one-on-one between a therapist and a patient. There should be no distractions during individual therapy. Individual therapy is helpful to those who don’t want to share their process of recovery with other personal relationships.

Group Therapy

Group therapy is when a therapist has a therapy session with multiple patients at the same time. The idea behind group therapy is to involve a group of people from similar backgrounds or occupations who can learn from one another’s mistakes. Meeting as a group allows individuals to provide positive peer support and feedback to each other.

12-Step Therapy

12-step therapy programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, focus on the spiritual development of individuals. While enrolled in 12-step programs, substance abusers will learn about:

  • the process of acceptance
  • the need for surrender
  • the importance of active involvement

Family Therapy

Family therapy is therapy that occurs between a therapist and a group of family members. The purpose of family therapy is to reduce stress and conflict between family members by getting different members within a family to empathize with one another.

Detoxification

Drug and alcohol detoxification is a period of time in which the substance abuser has to go without his or her desired substance. The detoxification process is monitored by physicians and addiction treatment specialists.

If a user is experiencing symptoms of withdrawal, a professional can oversee the reaction and administer medications if needed. This process is an important part of becoming clean, but it is not a substitute for treatment.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment centers generally allow clients to return to their homes in-between treatment sessions. Clients of outpatient treatment must still attend daily or set meeting times with a therapist though.

Residential Treatment

Inpatient treatment centers, or residential addiction treatment centers, require clients to live at the rehab facility that they’re receiving treatment at. This provides clients with the opportunity to get away from the temptation to use substances that the world brings every day. This also allows the substance abuser a more immersive treatment experience as they receive around-the-clock care.

Receive Help at Florida Center for Recovery

We here at Florida Center for Recovery understand the stress that Florida first responders are put under every day and how dealing with such extensive stress can lead to substance abuse and mental health disorders. That’s why we offer a specialized substance abuse treatment program that’s just for members of the military, the National Guard/Reserves, veterans, and first responders such as firefighters, police officers, and EMT and EMS professionals. Our veterans/first responders rehab program provides treatment for work-related traumas that have caused veterans and first responders to develop PTSD and behavioral/mental health disorders that have affected their mood, thoughts, and behaviors.

Experiencing the trauma and stress that veterans and Florida first responders experience on a daily basis can be draining. It may even lead one to consider abusing a substance. If you or a relative are struggling with substance abuse and/or substance-related mental or behavioral disorders, contact us today, and we can start you on a path to recovery.

References:

https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/dtac/supplementalresearchbulletin-firstresponders-may2018.pdf

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