July 27, 2015

Firefighters, Police and Paramedics: Hidden Populations that Need Help

Everyone needs help, even those who put their lives on the line every day to help others. These heroes,(firefighters, police officers, paramedics, etc.) undergo a significant amount of stress on a daily basis. According to new research published by the US National Library of Medicine, the repeated exposure to traumatic and stressful events leads to PTSD and other cognitive defects in the first responders of our communities.

Largely due to the culture surrounding these professions, it’s difficult for some to seek help when they need it. Unfortunately, PTSD and other cognitive impairments can often lead to self-medication with alcohol, tobacco or drug abuse. This begs the questions: who will help the heroes who help the rest of us?

Addiction in First Responders, Firefighters and Police Officers

For example, most firefighters won’t open up to others and speak about a call that bothered them. In actuality, the details of the call may be eating them up inside, but they hesitate to find an outlet to talk about it. Firefighter culture calls for each firefighter be stoic and able to take on anything the job might entail. Even mentioning PTSD is met with denial and puzzled looks.

However, studies have found that PTSD is very real throughout the military, paramedics, police officers and fire fighters. The trauma that each of these community servants endure on a daily basis is enough to create significant PTSD, which often leads to drug and alcohol abuse.

While the exact statistics are difficult to obtain, some estimates put the rate of alcohol abuse in fire departments throughout the United States at around 25-30%, which is three times the 7-9% rate of abuse in the general population.

A study published by The Journal of Law Enforcement illustrates that alcoholism and substance abuse among police officers is a widespread issue. Some estimates indicate that alcoholism and drug abuse impact 25% of all police officers in the United States. This is partially due to the connection between occupational stress and self-medication, but also related to a sub-culture among police officers that promotes drinking for social purposes and as an acceptable form of stress relief.

Providing the Support Required for Recovery

It’s important for police officers, paramedics and firefighters to recognize that alcohol and drug abuse is a very real problem within their profession. Acknowledging that every day can bring about new trauma and an increased level of stress will help open up the overall culture of these professions to be more accepting of counseling and mutual support.
Recognizing PTSD and substance abuse in others and offering help will create a community of support. Identifying PTSD in yourself can also prompt you to seek help. Signs of PTSD include:

  • Hopelessness and depression
  • Increased suicidal thoughts
  • Abuse of drugs and alcohol
  • Irritability and anger
  • Feeling betrayed, lonely or alienated
  • Increased physical aches and pains without a clear reason

On an individual level, people who find themselves drinking or using drugs daily to self-medicate the PTSD and other cognitive impairments brought on by the job need to ask for help. You can reach out to loved ones, fellow officers and firefighters or to a professional counselor. Beginning the conversation is the most important first step.

Asking for help from anyone may be difficult, but it will undoubtedly set you on the course to recovery. You don’t need to shoulder the burden alone – asking for help will help you regain control of your life.


  1. Elizabeth A. Willman, Alcoholism Among Law Enforcement, The Journal of Law Enforcement, http://jghcs.info/index.php/l/article/download/150/147 (PDF)
  2. Brian Meroney, Dealing with PTSD in the Fire Service, Firefighter Nation, August, 2013, http://www.firefighternation.com/article/management-and-leadership/dealing-ptsd-fire-service
  3. Einat Levy-Gigi, Gal Richter-Levin, and Szabolcs Kéri, The hidden price of repeated traumatic exposure: different cognitive deficits in different first-responders, US National Library of Medicine, August 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4138485/

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