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Helping Those Who Help Us: Treatment for First Responders and Military Members

Dillon McClernon

Authored by Dillon McClernon

Celebrating First Responders and Military Service Members and Veterans

Among the many things that the month of May brings, it is a time we take to honor the heroic and lifesaving actions undertaken by first responders—police officers, firefighters and EMTs/paramedics. We celebrate our firefighters on International Firefighters’ Day (May 4), police officers during National Police Week (May 9-15) and EMTs on National EMS Week (May 16-22).  And of course, on Memorial Day (May 31), we celebrate our military service members—past and present. 

Honoring Heroes through Helping Them

First responders face an extraordinary amount of stress at their jobs, encountering dangerous, traumatic and urgent incidents day in and day out. Not uncommonly, this takes a toll on their mental health, which, in turn, sometimes leads to self-medication in the form of substance abuse.

The culture around these occupations reinforces tendencies toward drug and alcohol problems. One factor is a kind of warrior ethos which shapes first responders’ identities as strong, stoic, helping others but avoiding help for themselves. Another factor is the social aspect, where substance abuse—especially drinking—is a normal way to destress and bond. The combination of severe stress and social acceptability poses a heightened risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD).

While frequently abused substances among first responders comprise marijuana, opioids and benzodiazepines, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance for a few reasons. For one thing, it is ingrained in first responder culture, especially among police, as a means of socializing, bonding and destressing; and as a depressant, it has a temporary dulling effect on anxiety and depression; plus it is easily obtained by anyone across socioeconomic lines.

Studies have shown, for example, that drinking is deeply entrenched in police culture, with the risk of developing alcohol use disorder increasing each year that one is on the force. In general, over 25% report drinking in order to feel ‘part of the team’ and 25% also report the negative influence on them of their colleagues’ drinking. According to a study by the U.S. Firefighters Association, 10% of firefighters abuse drugs and 29% abuse alcohol.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Use Disorder

This combination of factors contributes to the co-occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use disorder (SUD) among first responders. By repeatedly witnessing and responding to traumatic and otherwise high-stress events, first responders are at risk of developing PTSD—even when they are not victims of the traumatic events themselves.

Among the many kinds of episodes that generate PTSD in first responders, they face vehicular accidents, severe violence and sexual abuse, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, riots and war.

Notable signs or symptoms of PTSD include reliving the traumatizing events in vivid memories, flashbacks and dreams; anxiety when reminded of the trauma along with avoidance of reminders; manifestations of depression such as anxiety, lack of motivation, detachment and isolation; cognitive impairment, especially of attention and memory; self-destructive behavior, significantly including substance abuse; alienation and hopelessness.

Overall between 15% – 30% of first responders suffer from PTSD, with 20% of those with PTSD also struggling with some form of SUD. Among EMTs, 20% of them suffer from PTSD and 40% suffer from SUD.

Finding Hope and Recovery through Specialized Inpatient Treatment

As serious as these struggles are, effective treatment and lasting recovery are within reach. Recovery Centers of America offers First Responders Program (RESCU), a specialized addiction treatment program for police officers, firefighters, paramedics/EMTs as well as military service members.  

We will preserve patients’ privacy and confidentiality at all costs, while working smoothly with their union, HR and/or employment assistance program.

Within a supportive community of fellow first responders, patients will be guided by our expert, caring professional team. In a program designed specifically for first responders, patients will be treated through individual and group therapy, plus peer support groups and 12-Step meetings.

Our comprehensive approach will cover the drinking culture of first responders along with the inhibitions and fears it brings with it. We will also address trauma, guilt, anxiety and depression, among others.

Some of our facilities offer 12-Step meetings exclusively for law enforcement, corrections, firefighters, paramedics/EMTs, military members or veterans. Currently it is held virtually at RCA at Westminster (MA) on Tuesdays at 18:30 and at RCA at Devon on Wednesdays from 20:00 – 21:30, and is open to all first responders and military in search of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

Special Offerings to Support First Responders and Their Loved Ones

Families play a crucially important role in their loved ones recovery—first responders as much as anyone. But just as there are special features of the addiction struggles of first responders, so too do their families have additional considerations to contend with. Through our family programming  for families of first responders and military service members, we offer:

First Responders Family Group, a monthly one-hour webinar on the third Saturday of every month from 5pm-6pm, led by RCA’s Clinical Services team, providing education and support in handling issues of communication, resiliency, confidentiality, and more.

Badges to Recovery, a virtual two-hour monthly recovery event for families of first responders and military service members, from 10am-12pm, beginning on the fourth Saturday of June. A comprehensive educational and support event, families will learn about the root of addiction and the many ways to deal fruitfully with it, including healthy communication and coping strategies, and much else. 

The Resilience of First Responders and their Families, a new continuing education course for addiction and mental health professionals generally, via webinar on June 17, 2021, from 9:00 – 11:00 AM ET / 8:00 – 10:00 AM CT, for 2 NBCC CEU credits. Led by our Clinical Services team at RCA, this course will teach professionals about the unique challenges first responders face in work and in treatment, in relation to the role of their families as well.

If you or a loved one need help with a drug or alcohol addiction, call Recovery Centers of America now 1-800-RECOVERY.

Authored by

Dillon McClernon

Dillon McClernon

Dillon currently serves as the Senior Director of Sales and Marketing at RCA. After his tenure as Chief Communications Officer and senior advisor to RCA, he opted for a full-time position at RCA where he could build a new team linking sales and marketing to directly impact RCA’s mission of saving 1 million lives.


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