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Substance Abuse Among Firefighters
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  Substance Abuse Among Firefighters  

firefighters substance abuseFirefighters spend their days braving burning buildings, responding to emergencies and saving lives. But between long shifts and traumatic calls, countless firefighters develop conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder (ASD), anxiety and depression. Many men and women struggling with these issues turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with them. Because of the physically demanding nature of firefighting, firefighters are frequently injured on the job, and with each injury sustained there is a chance they may become addicted to painkillers during their recovery.

While the reality of firefighters' behavioral health issues are difficult to face, the good news is that resources are available for those struggling with a disorder. Are you a firefighter grappling with addiction or mental health issues? Are you the friend or loved one of a firefighter who is? Information about risk factors, treatment options and the paths to recovery can be found below.

Why Do Firefighters Have a Higher Risk of Developing Addiction and Mental Health Struggles?

While no demographic is untouched by addiction or mental health challenges, firefighters are disproportionately more likely to develop these conditions than members of the general population. According to a 2012 study published in Occupational Medicine, 56 percent of firefighters were also past-month binge drinkers. According to the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative, alcohol is the most common substance abused among firefighters. This is due to a variety of factors, including trauma, on-the-job injuries and fire station culture.

  • Trauma

  • Firefighters are often the first on the front lines of many accidents, including fires, car crashes and natural disasters. They witness life-altering injuries and senseless deaths. During some calls, their own lives may even be on the line. In the face of these challenges, many firefighters develop conditions like ASD and PTSD. Worse still, because of the extended shifts most firefighters work, they are often cut off from vital sources of familial support for long periods of time. This can make it even more difficult to process and bounce back from trauma, and may contribute to the development of severe mental health conditions in response to it.

  • On-the-Job Injuries

  • Workplace injuries are an inevitable fact of life for many firefighters. Sprains, strains and other muscle injuries are common because of the extremely physical nature of firefighter's work. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 62,085 firefighter injuries occurred in 2016. To help firefighters recover from these injuries, doctors will often prescribe opioid painkillers. While these substances can help relieve pain in the short-term, they can also lead to dependence and addiction if used in excess or over an extended period of time.
  • Fire Station Culture

  • While conditions have improved in some fire stations as awareness and knowledge about addiction and mental health risks increases, many stations still have a culture that encourages binge drinking. A recent study conducted by the American Heart Association found that male firefighters drink more on average than the general population. While only 23 percent of men in the general population reported binge drinking in the past month, nearly half of the firefighters surveyed did. Additionally, behavioral health issues are still stigmatized and ignored in some stations. This can be incredibly isolating for individuals struggling with a disorder, and makes it difficult to come forward and ask for help when it's needed.

Why Many Firefighters Don't Seek Help

Seeking treatment for behavioral health issues can prove difficult for many people, including individuals outside the firefighting profession. However, in many cases involving firefighters, this hesitation goes beyond typical apprehension. Firefighters spend their days helping people in need. So what happens when firefighters themselves need help? Because the men and women in this profession are so used to being the ones who support others, it can be difficult for them to seek professional assistance when they struggle with behavioral health problems, like addiction, PTSD or depression.

While awareness about mental health struggles and addiction have gradually increased within the firefighting community in recent years, stigma surrounding speaking up about these issues still exists. Many firefighters fear that they will be labeled “weak” or “unfit for work” if they come forward or attempt to seek care. A recent study published in Psychiatric Services showed that 58 percent of firefighters reported that stigma was a significant barrier to seeking treatment.

While stigma may not exist in all firehouses, many don't discuss mental health issues at all. This can leave a firefighter who is struggling feel isolated and alone. If a firefighter doesn't know anyone else dealing with these issues, they may blame themselves for their difficulties and suffer in silence. Perhaps this is why so many firefighters commit suicide. In 2017, 103 firefighters committed suicide, while 93 died in the line of duty.

Helpful Resources for Firefighters

Addiction and behavioral health difficulties can seem like an uphill battle, especially when you feel like the world expects you to have everything under control. However, if you or a firefighter you know struggles with addiction or behavioral health difficulties, options are available for treatment. Rehabilitation centers across the country address addiction and co-occurring disorders, including The Recovery Village®. If you're seeking specialized care for firefighters and paramedics, you may want to consider reaching out to the IAFF Center of Excellence. Designed by firefighters, for firefighters, this Maryland center has already helped hundreds of firefighters find a path to hope and healing among peers who understand their struggle. Reach out today for more information.

the recovery village

To learn more about this important issue please go to
this Recovery Village article.


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