For most of us, safety and security are often assumed and seldom given a second thought – except when they are at risk. It is our first responders that step up on our behalf and go into action, selflessly.  They face life-threatening situations at a moment’s notice. For some, it’s an everyday occurrence. If you were to ask first responders why they do it, a resounding “It’s part of the job” is the most likely answer.  Here’s what they won’t tell you: “I’m hurting and I don’t know how to make it stop.” As a way to cope with stress, drug and alcohol use temporarily keep the pain hidden. Unfortunately, first responders are last to fight addiction. With your help, we can change that.

Even Heroes Need to Cry

Imagine seeing life transcend into death. If you’re a first responder, it’s part of the norm. For the mentally unprepared, it’s life-altering. But can anyone ever really be prepared for tragedy on an ongoing basis? Typical responses to emotional trauma are anger, tears, or sadness. Continued exposure to trauma, unaddressed, can lead to more serious health issues with fatal consequences.

First Response Reality

The University of Phoenix backed a recent survey focused on police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders, to gain a better understanding of their exposure to traumatic events.

Of the 2000 survey participants:

First Responder Exposed to Trauma Mental Health Diagnosis Pre-Trauma Treatment Offered Post-Trauma Treatment*
Police Officers 90% 33% 51% 49%
EMTs 90% 33% 51% 49%
Firefighters 80% 33% 51% 49%
*Not indicative of undergoing treatment

By diving deeper into the survey results, a 33 percent ranking of mental health diagnosis may seem low. Take into account that this number is based on those who have received a mental health assessment or therapy. What begs a bigger question is the 67 percent of untreated first responders…

Public Perception vs. Personal Pain

There’s an unspoken pressure put upon first responders and other public servants. They are perceived as our unsung heroes and do what they can to meet expectations. By being the embodiment of strength, any indication of failure must be kept hidden, including mental weakness. With more recent public outcries of social injustice, first responders are not only in harm’s way from natural disasters and terrorism, but from the people they are trying to protect at home.  For example, with the recent opioid epidemic and the escalating use of fentanyl, EMTs and police officers have an increased risk of accidental overdose.

Members of the armed forces, Department of Justice, and other state or local first responder agencies and departments have mental health resources at their disposal. Then why do those that need the help shy away from it?

Strong evidence suggests a direct correlation between fear of judgment, discrimination and punishment behind first responders’ resistance in seeking help, according to a 2017 article in Psychology Today. But there’s so much more behind the mask of emotional self-preservation.

fire fightersTime Is a Key Difference in PTSD

During exposure to a traumatic event, the body and brain react in a manner known as the “fight or flight” response. Hormones are instantaneously released (some describe it as an adrenaline-like rush) providing anyone the means to be heroic, even those that aren’t first responders. After the event is over, the body and the mind need time to heal.  First responders seldom have time to heal because they face trauma over and over again.

People who have suffered a single traumatic event may relive the event in their mind, reactivating the fight-or-flight response even when a threat of harm or survival does not exist. This is characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder “PTSD”.  Add to this an increased incidence of traumatic experiences and it begins to create an accurate picture of the day-to-day for a first responder. Without the time needed to truly heal, first responders are left with few choices: Learn to willfully grow numb to the pain or succumb to it. Over time, the choices often merge into mental illness and drug or alcohol addiction.

Emotional Outlets Lead to Better Mental Health

Whether you’re a first responder or know someone who is, we are all humans first. We feel. When we feel, we need to release those feelings or express them. The behaviors associated with PTSD include repression of feelings, thoughts and the memories behind them. Symptoms of PTSD may not be visible for months, all the more reason why first responders need to have healthy emotional outlets and specialized treatment, such as EMDR therapy, to address the issues they face quickly and effectively.

PTSD Is a Silent Killer

In a 2011 study from the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, military veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffering from PTSD reported suicidal thoughts, three times higher than those without the disorder. While the suicide risks to men who serve the country are disparagingly higher than women, this may have more to do with the nnumber of men compared to women in combat. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health states that women are more prone to develop PTSD, than men.

The Past Can Wreak Havoc on their Future

As PTSD progresses, the ability to function in daily activities diminishes. As the mind becomes overwhelmed with thoughts of the past trauma, people, places and experiences unrelated to the event may trigger unwarranted fight or flight responses, endangering the life of those with the illness and others.

PTSD Partners with Drug Addiction

Due to the perceived expectations put upon first responders and other government workers, coupled with the need to quiet the mind when PTSD is present, self-medication through alcohol or drug use is common. Because PTSD is an anxiety disorder, it is worsened by substance abuse. Mental illness heightens the desire for drug or alcohol intake; and in turn, drugs and alcohol use heighten the symptoms of mental illness. Together, they co-occur as dual diagnosis and can increase the risk of suicide.

PTSD and drug or alcohol addiction compromise:

  • Personal relationships
  • Work relationships
  • Financial stability
  • Physical health
  • Mental health

First responders and other public servants are passionate about taking care of others. It’s about time we do what we can to help them.

Love Has a Hand in PTSD

If you are a first responder or other government employee that has experienced undue trauma, you don’t have to suffer anymore. You deserve the love and help you need.

If your father, son, mother or daughter still battles with PTSD long after the war is over, your love and compassion may not be enough. It takes courage to admit there’s a problem.  Ignoring it is like saying that living with PTSD without help is okay.  It isn’t.

First Responders Can Fight Addiction and Win

Police officers, firefighters, military veterans and many others continue to find the relief needed to recover from PTSD and substance addiction peacefully and privately in the warmth of Scottsdale, Arizona.


Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center® holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2009. Call 602-346-9142.